WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s first speech to Congress left Republicans encouraged and enthusiastic despite continued thorny divisions over health care, taxes and more.
Trump’s disciplined and optimistic tone was what GOP lawmakers wanted to hear after a rocky first month that provoked daily anxiety on Capitol Hill with each new presidential tweet. Republicans welcomed Trump’s presentation and his call for “a new chapter of American greatness.”
U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, whose 9th District includes Scotland County, called the speech an “extraordinary night for America.”
“President Trump gave an exceptional speech that set the course for the future of this great country,” Pittenger said in a statement. “He laid out his plans for what needs to be done to remove the burdensome regulations, to change the tax code, to reform health care and how it’s delivered in a very cost-effective way.”
At the same time, Trump was steadfast in his commitment to protect the nation, said Pittenger, who serves as chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare.
“We must protect our borders,” Pittenger said. “We also recognize, as (Trump) said, that there are Islamic terrorists who seek our destruction.”
As Republicans cheered and Democrats sat silently Tuesday night, Trump declared: “We should help Americans purchase their own coverage, through the use of tax credits and expanded health savings accounts — but it must be the plan they want, not the plan forced on them by the government.”
Those were comments that some House Republicans interpreted as an embrace of their plan to replace the Affordable Care Act with a new system built around refundable tax credits.
Still, a day after the president called for “unity and strength,” Republicans looked as divided as ever as they try to make good on seven years of promises to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama’s health care law. Most said Trump’s speech hadn’t changed that or brought them much closer together.
“I don’t know that that was his intent,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. “But I mean he gave the kind of guidelines that I think most presidents give on issues like this and it’s up to us.”
But conservatives who’ve been rebelling against that plan, denouncing the credits as a costly new entitlement, disagreed. And they showed few signs of backing down, although Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., leader of a large group of House conservatives, conceded Wednesday that the refundable tax credits likely will be included in the GOP leadership plan, adding he would try to limit the cost of those credits.
Trump’s comments on another massive legislative priority, overhauling the loophole-ridden tax code, also did not appear to move the needle. A vague overture on immigration was welcomed by some, yet with no details provided its future was cloudy. The president repeated his call for a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, but that could provoke a confrontation with deficit hawks and is on the back burner on Capitol Hill anyway given the enormous legislative lifts on health care and taxes that loom first.
And Trump’s failure to say anything about Medicare and Social Security, the massive entitlements that are eating up the budget, left some Republicans complaining that he was ducking political reality.
“The president has a saying, ‘All talk, no action.’ His budget is all talk and no action when it comes to long-term indebtedness,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters Wednesday.
Amid the divisions, Trump lunched with top House and Senate GOP leaders, where the group discussed working more closely together on their joint goals.
Pittenger is optimistic about what a Republican president and a Republican Congress can do.
“I commend the president for his leadership. I commend the Congress for its commitment to work with the President. We all must go into this recognizing the opportunity is here and it’s now and it’s urgent for the American people. We covet your involvement. We covet your prayers as we work together to change the course of this country.”