WASHINGTON — The Republican majority in Congress was on a glide path to the midterms, having passed tax cuts into law and backed off budget battles with a year-end funding package. But President Trump was not impressed.
Trump has been picking apart some GOP accomplishments, including the big budget bill, and complaining that others, namely his border wall, remained undone.
Congress returned Monday scrambling over a to-do list that will satisfy a president Republicans desperately need to be promoting their achievements, not undermining them, as they prepare to hit the campaign trail.
"A lot of members would prefer to spend the rest of the year focusing on getting re-elected, but there's pressure from the White House ... to deliver more policy wins before facing voters," said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist.
On Monday, the Senate swore in its newest member, Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi. Hyde-Smith was tapped by the Mississippi governor as the first woman in Congress to represent the state, filling the seat after longtime GOP Sen. Thad Cochran resigned.
Later, Democrat Conor Lamb will take his seat Thursday in the House after a long-shot special election win in western Pennsylvania.
Lawmakers also learned Monday they have limited room to maneuver after the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said annual deficits will skyrocket close to $1 trillion in coming years after passage of the tax and spending bills.
But Trump's penchant for belittling lawmakers and badgering them to work doesn't help instill voter confidence in Republicans already facing an enthusiasm gap with Democrats fired up to go to the polls, strategists say. They need Trump on their side, not piling on.
"Every day that Trump attacks Congress, he hurts Republicans' chance of keeping the majority," Conant said.
The problems between Trump and Congress, festering for months, spilled into the open when the president toyed with vetoing the $1.3 trillion funding bill he thought spent too much money on Democratic priorities and not enough on his, including the border wall.
While Congress was away, Trump started talking about rescinding some of that money, working with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on a do-over package that would force lawmakers into another round of budget votes this spring or summer. Republicans are eyeing less than $30 billion in cuts, though the White House may seek more.
"We are looking at an enhanced rescission package," said Lawrence Kudlow, the White House's Chief Economic Adviser, on Fox News Sunday. "I think the Republican Party on the Hill has finally figured out, it's really not a bad idea to trim some spending because, after all, spending can lead to deficits and spending interferes with the economy."
At the same time, Trump's revolving door of Cabinet secretaries has created a legislative logjam of its own. It has forced the Senate to launch lengthy confirmation hearings, starting with this week for Mike Pompeo as the new secretary of state. After that, there are Trump's picks for CIA director and Veterans Affairs secretary.
The nomination battles are sure to dredge up tough debates — over the Russia probe, the CIA's use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques now outlawed, and the spiraling costs and care at the VA. They're hardly the top conversations lawmakers would choose as their focus in the months before an election.
A senior administration official told reporters on a conference call last week that border security could be among the biggest issues for Congress this spring and summer.
That's likely news to Republicans running for re-election, particularly in swing districts or with sizable minority populations, who have shown little interest in the kind of beefed-up border security the administration has proposed to turn back unaccompanied minors and clamp down on asylum seekers.
To complicate the agenda further, Trump wants Congress to try again on an immigration overhaul, an issue Republicans were happy to shelve earlier this year after he rejected their compromise with Democrats. They offered $25 billion for the border wall in exchange for deportation protections for the young immigrants known as "Dreamers."
Trump's to-do list is not the springtime agenda Republicans in Congress were hoping for. Instead, they had expected to spend the next few months tackling more modest measures. Among them: legislation to address the opioid epidemic and symbolic House bills on making tax cuts permanent or achieving a balanced budget that, though unlikely to become law, could motivate Republicans to go to the polls in November. Senators were considering more judicial nominees, including some on track Monday for confirmation this week.
Republicans were planning to ride to re-election this fall on the success of their tax cuts package, a once-in-a-generation accomplishment that has long been among the GOP's top priorities.
But at a campaign stop last week, even Trump seemed to have tired of the tax cuts. He literally tossed his prepared remarks aside as "boring" and instead focused on a caravan of Central American migrants making its way through Mexico and on his plan for National Guard troops at the border. Trump even revived his attack on immigrants as "rapists" from his presidential campaign.
"Remember my opening remarks at Trump Tower when I opened? Everybody said, 'Oh, he was so tough,' and I used the word rape," he said during the tax reform roundtable in West Virginia.
"So we have to change our laws," he said. "We have to have strong borders. We're going to have the wall."
The tough talk may push voters to the polls for Republicans in the more conservative districts who are already likely to have a good chance at re-election. But more than anything, strategists said, it helps secure Trump's supporters for Trump.
"Would any Republican other than Steve King rather have the president talking about jobs, the tax cuts, or have the president talk about migrants being raped?" said GOP strategist Doug Heye, referring to the Iowa congressman who is among the most hard line on immigration.
But, he added, "We know that Donald Trump didn't come here for glide path or status quo. He came to shake things up."