Congressional Republicans prepare to hear from Trump

Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, Steve Scalise, Mimi Walters
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., joined by, from left, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of La., and Rep. Mimi Walters, R-Calif., meets reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017, as he announced that he has invited President Donald Trump to address a Joint Session of Congress on Feb. 28. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Congressional Republicans eager to deliver are about to find out whether Donald Trump can stay focused on their goals in his first appearance before them as president.

Trump will speak Thursday to House and Senate GOP lawmakers at their annual policy retreat. Despite a rocky start to his administration — Trump has veered off course to make false claims about voter fraud and his inaugural crowd size — many lawmakers remain optimistic at the prospect of the work they can do together. They hope to see a Trump focused on unity and results, not one veering off-course into conspiracy theories or re-litigating the election or the inauguration.

Ahead of Trump’s appearance, House Speaker Paul Ryan sketched out an ambitious agenda to lawmakers including sending Trump a health care repeal bill by March and a rewrite of the tax code by summer’s end. Also in the first 200 days Congress will confront paying for Trump’s newly announced border wall, which Ryan confirmed could cost $8 billion to $14 billion, and will work on an infrastructure bill that Trump requested be added to the already packed agenda.

“I’m just so excited we finally have a chance to do this because we have the House and the Senate and a president who is with us,” Ryan said Wednesday in an interview on MSNBC, discussing plans to overhaul the tax code, eliminating loopholes and lowering corporate rates to 20 percent or even the 15 percent sought by Trump.

“If you can clean up the cesspool of the tax code and give us a pro-growth tax code, that is how you grow the economy, that is how you take power and money out of Washington and give it back to the people,” he said.

Lawmakers were generally enthusiastic to see Trump take quick action on immigration, oil pipelines and other issues via executive order, even though they criticized Barack Obama for overusing such administrative tools when he was president. This time around Republican lawmakers justify it by saying Trump, in many cases, is undoing what Obama did.

“People are more optimistic, the stock market’s rising, companies are deciding to build, folks look at him approving the Keystone XL pipeline. He said he wanted to create jobs. I think there’s a sense that he’s working hard to create jobs and I think that’s incredibly positive,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La.

As for Trump’s fixation on supposed illegal voting by 3 million to 5 million people, which is untrue, and the attendance at his inauguration: “Those are distractions, and it’s dwelled upon; I particularly don’t care about it,” Cassidy said.

Most Republicans took Cassidy’s approach of downplaying the distractions. But others said there was real concern that Trump could be the GOP’s own worst enemy at the very moment they’ve seized full control of Washington and believe they have a mandate to usher in sweeping change starting with repealing and replacing Obama’s health care law.

“I’d rather not be revisiting and rehashing the election. It’s over,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa. “We have to get onto the serious issue of governing. These other issues are distractions.”

But Dent added: “I don’t control the Twitter feed.”

Lawmakers will also hear Thursday from Vice President Mike Pence and from British Prime Minister Theresa May, in the first instance in which a foreign head of state appears at the GOP retreat. Lawmakers said it was a chance to showcase the relationship with Britain in the visit from May, who vaulted to power as a result of the surprise Brexit vote many saw as a precursor to Trump’s own victory.

When Trump speaks, lawmakers will be watching closely to see if he focuses on the work ahead or the distractions.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., asked about message discipline and communication with the White House, said: “It’s a work in progress.”