PHILADELPHIA — From one angle, President Donald Trump got off to a quick start during his first week on the job — and not just in stoking controversy.
He picked a fight with Mexico and signed executive orders approving the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and allowing his appointees to begin dismembering Obamacare. The Dow, blowing past the 20K barrier, and congressional Republicans, seeking momentum for their economic ideas, cheered him along.
From a different vantage point, however, the hard political labor all lies ahead — with Trump himself making it harder. As a result, the GOP’s ability to complete its ambitious agenda soon remains highly uncertain.
Trump made it harder by engaging in protracted, distracting arguments over the size of his inaugural crowd, the reason he drew fewer popular votes than Hillary Clinton and the efficacy of torture techniques rejected by both parties in Congress. His Republican allies wish none of those subjects had come up during the new president’s opening days in the Oval Office.
But even if they didn’t, his team and congressional Republicans haven’t settled the toughest questions dividing them on their economic priorities. The longer that takes, the narrower their window for action in the first year when presidents typically hold their greatest power.
Among those unresolved questions:
Trade policy: Scuttling TPP surprised no one, since Trump and Hillary Clinton opposed it during the 2016 campaign. But no one wants trade wars either. Cancellation of next week’s U.S.-Mexico presidential meeting over the planned border wall has congressional Republicans eager to hear more about the bilateral trade deals the new president says he has in mind.
Obamacare replacement: After initially planning a “repeal and delay” strategy putting off details of a new system for a couple of years, Republicans heard Trump declare the two things should be done simultaneously. But the party is so far from consensus that the House is tentatively planning to proceed with a slow-motion replacement beginning with small pieces such as expanded health savings accounts. And senators warn that any replacement plan for their chamber will require some cooperation from minority Democrats.
Tax reform: House Republicans are busy translating their comprehensive reform plan for both the individual and corporate tax codes into legislative language, hoping to begin committee action this spring. But Trump has expressed reservations about their “border-adjustment” provision, which raises much of the money required to push down corporate rates to the 20 percent level favored by the House. More cautious Senate Republicans have their own objections, and some veterans believe only a corporate tax overhaul is politically possible in any case.
Debt and deficits: Budget hawks remain a powerful force within the congressional GOP. But Trump’s plans to cut taxes, increase military spending, pay for infrastructure projects and leave entitlement spending alone point toward substantially more red ink. That issue will complicate the next required increase in the federal debt limit this spring.
Republicans traveled Thursday to Philadelphia for a joint House-Senate retreat in hopes they’d receive clearer signals from the White House. But Trump, after delivering a pep talk before cameras, filled in few of the blanks in the closed-door session that followed.
“Not a lot of new ground,” said Republican Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania. “Not a lot of specifics.”
In the pep talk, Trump acknowledged that “we’re putting ourselves at some risk” by deciding to repeal Obamacare and creating a new system. Congressional Republicans, who must face the voters next year before Trump does, understand that very well.