Congress

Food fight? After spats on Twitter, Trump’s having lunch with Senate Republicans

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, and Defense Secretary James Mattis, speak to members of the media after their meeting Friday, Oct. 20, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, and Defense Secretary James Mattis, speak to members of the media after their meeting Friday, Oct. 20, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP

Like a feuding family that still shares a dinner table, President Donald Trump will join Senate Republicans at lunch Tuesday in the ornate Mansfield Room at the U.S. Capitol. Pass the gravy and a side of awkward.

But any discomfort is expected to dissipate quickly, thanks to a dish every Republican senator can savor: A tax rewrite.

That's expected to be Trump's main topic. The House later this week is expected to pass legislation that will push the effort forward, and the next, more crucial, step will involve filling in details.

While there's been no shortage of fusillades launched from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue or the other, the shared desire among Senate Republicans and the White House to secure a legislative victory and enact a sweeping tax overhaul is expected to paper over any differences.

Monday night, those who have endured Trump’s ire were saying they were ready to talk policy.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had no idea what to expect at lunch, but didn’t expect it to be awkward.

“As far as I’m concerned, I’m glad he’s coming to lunch,” McCain said.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., was asked if he thought he and Trump would exchange words.

“Who knows?” Corker replied.

"I have no idea," he added. "I really don't. I haven't thought about it."

For one thing, tax reform is too important to the senators.

"I don't think any of them want to be the senator standing in the way of tax reform because of a personal disagreement," said Levi Russell of Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group running ads that look to prod some Democrats in Trump-friendly states, as well as Senate Republicans, to back a tax overhaul.

The Koch-brothers aligned group is targeting a few of the Republican senators Trump has tangled with, including McCain, Corker, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, Jerry Moran of Kansas and Dean Heller of Nevada. They’ve all resisted Trump’s agenda at one point or another. But they all want the tax debate.

“There’s certainly a wide diversion of personal styles and approaches and insults that have gone back and forth,” Russell said. “But this is no time to make it personal, it is time to do the right thing for the country.”

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who himself has been a Trump target but appeared in the Rose Garden with the president last week in an effort to show bonhomie between the two, shrugged off the sniping and said he would “refuse to get diverted” by the occasional flareups.

“The president's agenda and our agenda are one and the same," McConnell told CNN. “We're thrilled to have somebody in the White House who supports what this House and Senate Republican majority has been wanting to have an opportunity to do for a long time.”

Scott Jennings, a Republican political consultant in Kentucky who has worked for McConnell, expected senators to be eager for Trump to provide them with some clarity on what he wants to see in a tax package, along with some indication of whether he will sign a compromise health care bill.

There’s no upside in “airing out grievances,” Jennings said. “That’s not to say someone won’t, but I think it’s more likely to be locking arms and doing what’s necessary to check off agenda items, rather than devolving into personality conflicts.”

Trump has torched several Senate Republicans on Twitter. He commiserated last week with his former aide, Steve Bannon, who has vowed a “season of war” against establishment Republicans. Though Trump claimed a “fantastic relationship” with Senate Republicans, he told reporters last Monday that “there are some Republicans, frankly, that should be ashamed of themselves."

Republican senators have largely shied away from critiquing Trump. Few sided with Corker, who likened Trump’s White House to “adult day care” and warned that Trump’s leadership was putting the U.S. “on the path to World War III.”

Asked about his expectations for lunch, Corker paused, shrugged and downplayed its importance: “You know, it's your standard, typical photo op," he said.

Senator John McCain jabbed at unnamed pushers of isolationist politics, saying at his National Constitution Center Liberty Medal ceremony in Philadelphia that abandoning America's role as an international leader is "unpatriotic."

McCain was widely viewed as delivering a subtle jab at Trump in a C-SPAN interview that aired over the weekend, criticizing a system that allowed the richest Americans to obtain draft deferments for ailments like a “bone spur.” Trump received four deferments from the draft for his college education before he was diagnosed with bone spurs that medically disqualified him from serving.

Trump says the feuds are beneficial to his cause.

“We’ll see what happens in the end. But I think, actually sometimes it helps,” Trump told Fox News in an interview that aired Sunday of his bickering with senators. “Sometimes it gets people to do what they’re supposed to be doing. And you know, that’s the way it is.”

So far, however, Senate Republicans have failed to deliver on their signature campaign promise — and Trump’s call — to repeal President Barack Obama’s signature health care act.

Trump and Republicans can ill afford to let any feuds get in the way of a tax overhaul, a considerable lift for any Congress. Republicans are using a process that enables them to limit debate and pass the legislation with just 50 votes, since Vice President Mike Pence would break any ties. The GOP controls 52 of the 100 seats.

McCain described his relationship with Trump as “almost none” in an interview with The View on Monday when one host asked if he and the president spoke.

Trump and McCain tussled anew last week as McCain in a speech decried "half-baked, spurious nationalism" in America's foreign policy. Trump told reporters that he’d fight back and "it won't be pretty."

Asked by one of the hosts if he was “scared” of Trump's threats, McCain burst out laughing. And perhaps set a tone for Tuesday’s lunch.

“I have faced greater challenges,” McCain said, adding "Let's stop insulting each other. Let's start respecting each other.”

Emma Dumain of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark

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