As GOP sketches ambitious goals in Philly, Trump keeps them guessing

GOP Retreat
Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.) speaks with members of the media Wednesday during a news conference at the Republican congressional retreat in Philadelphia. ,

Congressional Republicans arrived in Center City on Wednesday to lay out an aggressive agenda for the first 200 days of the Trump administration.

But even as the lawmakers opened their three-day retreat hoping to build a sense of shared purpose, the new president continued to overshadow them, dominate attention, and at times wrong-foot fellow Republicans with his free-swinging style.

The same day Congress' top Republicans spoke about repealing the Affordable Care Act and overhauling the tax code -- perhaps within months -- President Trump grabbed the spotlight by issuing executive orders aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration, and on Twitter announced a "major investigation" to prove his unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud.

The flurry of activity came at the start of the retreat at the Loews hotel, an event that, in part because of its guest speakers, was poised to draw an international spotlight to Philadelphia for the third time in as many years.

On Thursday, Trump will address the Congressional Republicans, followed by Vice President Pence, British Prime Minister Theresa May, and former NFL star Peyton Manning. Some Republicans hope the president gives more insight into exactly what he wants in legislation.

President Trump in Philly: Click here for live updates.

The event will shut down streets in Center City and is expected to attract protesters, potentially thousands, drawn largely by the opportunity to speak out against the new president.

Against that backdrop, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) sketched out a plan Wednesday that hopes to take advantage of Republicans' newfound power in Washington.

Speaking to fellow lawmakers behind closed doors, he displayed a chart similar to those used on construction projects, according to lawmakers who were there. It called for gutting key pieces of the Affordable Care Act by the end of March and advancing an overhaul of the federal tax code by the end of August.

But Republican lawmakers eager to work on those long-prized goals also faced questions about Trump's voter fraud complaints and executive orders of which few seemed to have much knowledge.

"This is obviously a transition that's under way here. I expect you'll see probably better coordination over time," said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the Senate's third-ranking Republican. On the question of voter fraud he added, "I view the election as history, and we're ready to roll up our sleeves and go to work."

Rep. Charlie Dent (R., Pa.) called talk about inauguration crowd size and illegal voting on Nov. 8 "distractions," adding, "It's time to move on."

Having seized control of all the levers of power for the first time since George W. Bush's administration, Dent and other GOP legislators have an ambitious policy agenda. Trump, they said, was on board with the 200-day plan but insisted on adding an infrastructure program. That's an idea the new president and many Democrats have supported but that Republicans have resisted because of its cost.

“Without the president’s input that would not have been [on the agenda], but our president’s been pretty clear on setting his priorities,” said Rep. Chris Collins (R., N.Y.), a Trump ally.

The retreat's aim is to give Republicans a chance to map out a strategy for how to use their power. While Republicans broadly agree on their priorities, each is a complex undertaking full of sticky details on which members of the same party don't always agree.

Dent, for example, was one of nine House Republicans to vote against the initial step to repeal the health law because he worried that the GOP did not have a replacement ready. He compared that idea Wednesday to getting on a plane without a plan to land. Others want to move quickly, replacement or not.

Dent cautioned that while House leaders hope to move fast, the Senate is a different story. The chamber's rules mean that major bills will require some Democratic support to overcome procedural hurdles.

"That's what I hope we get out of this retreat, if nothing else: That a lot of my colleagues in the House understand the reality of the Senate," said Dent, a centrist often at odds with his own party.

And despite the GOP ambition, the plans they discussed included few details of what the legislation will look like.

Rep. Ryan Costello (R., Pa.) said the idea is to find a strategy that can get bills to the new president's desk. "Ultimately, this is where House and Senate leadership get together and sort of map out how to be most effective," he said.

Collins said the GOP caucus was "as united as it’s ever been" because of its opportunity and the challenge of overcoming Democratic opposition.

“We are being challenged by our leadership to unite on this and being warned there’s going to be some tough votes, and the Democrats are not going to help us," he said.