Tuesday, February 28, 2017
WASHINGTON — Heralding a “new chapter of American greatness,” President Donald Trump stood before Congress for the first time Tuesday night and issued a broad call for overhauling the nation’s health care system, significantly boosting military spending and plunging $1 trillion into upgrading crumbling infrastructure.
Striking an optimistic tone, Trump declared: “The time for small thinking is over.”
Trump’s address came at a pivotal moment for a new president elected on pledges to swiftly shake up Washington and follow through on the failed promises of career politicians. His opening weeks in office have been consumed by distractions and self-inflicted wounds, including the bungled rollout of a sweeping immigration and refugee executive order that was blocked by the courts.
Ahead of the signing of a revamped order, Trump said, “It is not compassionate but reckless, to allow uncontrolled entry from places where proper vetting cannot occur.”
Trump sent unexpectedly mixed messages on immigration, one of his signature campaign issues. He pledged to vigorously target people living in the U.S. illegally who “threaten our communities and prey on our citizens.” But he told news anchors before his speech that he was open to legislation that could provide a pathway to legal status, and he told Congress he believed “real and positive immigration reform is possible.”
The president was greeted by enthusiastic applause as he entered the House chamber, though it was filled with Democrats who vigorously oppose his policies and many Republicans who never expected him to be elected. Most Republican lawmakers have rallied around him since the election, hopeful that he will act on the domestic priorities they saw blocked during President Barack Obama’s eight years in office.
Topping that list is undoing Obama’s signature health care law and replacing the sweeping measure. Trump offered a basic blueprint of his priorities, including ensuring that those with pre-existing conditions have access to coverage, allowing people to buy insurance across state lines and offering tax credits and expanded health savings accounts to help Americans purchase coverage.
He suggested he would get rid of the current law’s requirement that all Americans carry insurance coverage, saying that “mandating every American to buy government-approved health insurance was never the right solution for America.”
Democrats, now firmly ensconced in the minority, sat silently while Republicans cheered and stood for many of Trump’s promises. Some wore blue, pro-health care buttons that read “Protect our care,” and dozens of Democratic women wore white in honor of the suffrage movement.
First lady Melania Trump sat with special guests who were on hand to amplify the president’s agenda, including the widows of two California police officers killed by a man living in the country illegally. The widow of former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia also sat alongside Mrs. Trump, a reminder of the president’s well-received nomination of federal appeals court Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill Scalia’s seat.
Trump was vague in his call for tax reform, another Republican priority. He promised “massive tax relief for the middle class” and a reduction in corporate tax rates, but glossed over how he would offset the cuts.
The president also urged Congress to pass a $1 trillion infrastructure package financed through both public and private capital.
Barack Obama is getting closer to making his public reappearance in politics, his friend and former Attorney General Eric Holder said on Tuesday.
Holder said he’s been talking to the former president about ways — including fundraising and interacting with state legislators — that could help the new National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which Obama asked Holder to chair last year.
“It’s coming. He’s coming,” Holder said, speaking to reporters at a briefing for the new group. “And he’s ready to roll.”
Throughout, Holder said, Obama “will be a more visible part of the effort.”
Holder also predicted that the usual pattern of the party in the White House losing state legislative seats in off-year elections would hold next year, but “I expect we’ll see that on steroids with President Trump.”
The NDRC is looking to be an intensified central force for Democrats to tackle their disadvantage in gerrymandering. The mission is to direct resources into winning targeted state elections, push ballot initiatives for nonpartisan district-drawing commissions and wage legal challenges to existing maps. The hope is that this would put Democrats in a stronger position in state houses, but also in the U.S. House of Representatives, if districts are drawn that more accurately represent the distribution of the popular vote, citing statistics that showed Republicans winning 49 percent of the vote in those elections but getting 55 percent of the seats in the 2016 elections.
Marc Elias, a top election lawyer who’s advising the group, said that in addition to joining existing challenges to state laws, they’re already prospecting for states where they could file new lawsuits, predicting they’ll file more before the end of 2017.
Holder acknowledged that the work in the courts has gotten more difficult with Jeff Sessions now in his old job running the Justice Department. He called the department’s decision to scrap a challenge to voter laws in Texas on Monday “disheartening,” but said that while “it would be good to have the Justice Department on our side … it doesn’t mean that the argument can’t be made, and can’t be made well.”
“This is really a battle for our democracy,” Holder said. “The notion that people are denied their ability to cast a meaningful vote … is inconsistent with who we say we are, inconsistent with what we say our democracy is about.”
The government flagged more than 1.6 million foreign visitors for overstaying their visas from 2013 to 2015, but deportation agents said they fell too low on President Obama’s list of priorities to bother targeting for removal, according to a watchdog report released Monday.