In a conference room near his office last Monday, House Speaker Paul Ryan gave conservative activists some unwelcome news: He wanted the Senate, House and White House on the same page before a tax reform bill was introduced, according to people present — and that would likely be after Labor Day.
Senate Republicans are also nowhere near a solution on health care legislation, according to senators and several people familiar with their talks. "I don’t see a comprehensive health care plan this year," said Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said Thursday in a local TV interview.
As for the promised $1 trillion infrastructure plan, the president’s aides have begun talking about shaping a proposal, but that is "a ways off," one senior White House official said.
In other words, as the special prosecutor probe into potential Russian collusion heats up, White House officials fear it could be a long, hot summer — with little tangible to tout. And they worry how an antsy president, who wants things done immediately and has a rudimentary understanding of the legislative process, will handle it — particularly if the investigation dominates news media coverage.
“We’re going to do all these things by Sept. 30? Give me a break. We’re going to cut taxes, pass healthcare, set aside sequestration?” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.
Trump has agreed in meetings with advisers to spend the summer focusing on the legislative agenda — traveling to push a health care agenda in June, and for tax reform in July and August, according to a senior White House official. This person said the campaign is slated for the "upper Midwest states."
In the meantime, Trump has grown impatient in recent days about the slow pace of accomplishments. And some Republicans believe the White House hasn’t gotten enough credit for what they have achieved so far. The senior White House official said the administration should have communicated better about rolling back regulations — and had spent much time on the Neil Gorsuch confirmation, a significant move for conservatives.
Senior Trump White House officials said Trump is heavily engaged on tax reform — meeting several times a week with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Gary Cohn, the president’s chief economic adviser. Publicly, the administration is trying to push a feeling of momentum, with Trump claiming on Thursday that a tax bill is “moving along” and Cohn promising on Friday a tax plan by the end of summer.
And some lawmakers say the White House appears to have learned lessons from the health care push.
"This has been a more constructive process than health care," said Rep. Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican. "They’ve had any number of different listening sessions. They seem to be getting more orderly and finding their sea legs."
But the White House and lawmakers know that tax reform is likely to be even more complicated than health care, and they know Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will likely not take pressure well like Ryan did on rushing a vote, according to several administration officials. Most importantly, they are concerned about keeping focus on the legislative agenda for a week without distractions from the special prosecutor’s Russia probe, the president’s attention span, a splintered Republican Party and the president’s Twitter account.
"The U.S. Senate should switch to 51 votes, immediately, and get Healthcare and TAX CUTS approved, fast and easy. Dems would do it, no doubt!" Trump tweeted on Tuesday. The post drew laughs from aides on the Hill and some lawmakers. "No one had any clue what that tweet meant," one senior GOP aide said.
Trump has also indicated, like he did earlier this week, that the tax bill was already in Congress — puzzling legislators. "How is he saying the bill is making progress?" one Capitol Hill aide asked. "There is no bill!"
An effort from some in the White House — particularly chief strategist Steve Bannon — to link health care and some tax cuts to secure Senate votes is "going nowhere," in the words of one White House official.
"That’s the question," another White House official said, when asked if Trump can focus to push an agenda. And, according to several people in the administration, there is widespread disagreement on what a final tax plan will look like. Administration officials continue to make conflicting public statements — and the administration could be hobbled by a difficult spending and shutdown fight that will likely come to a head on Capitol Hill late this summer or in early fall.
Conservatives meanwhile are quickly lowering their expectations on the robust accomplishments they had predicted before Trump took office — with a Republican House and Senate in his corner. And they see time ticking off the clock before the midterm elections, particularly with the president’s low approval ratings.
"People are anxious and worried things won’t get done," said Matt Schlapp, a conservative activist. "The agenda needs to get done this year. I don’t see how it gets any easier. It’s kind of put-up-or-shut-up time."
Ryan made clear to the conservatives at last Monday’s meeting that substantive legislation needed to move this year, according to one person present, or it would be difficult to make it happen.
"It’s the most disappointing nothingness that anyone could have imagined," said one conservative activist close to the administration. "Everyone expected a flurry of activity, and there’s nothing anyone can point to."
Several conservative activists said that Republicans on Capitol Hill initially believed that the Russia investigation was overblown — and that the news media was over-hyping the revelations. But now, with several investigations and new revelations almost every day, Republicans have begun to worry more, these activists said.
"When you talk to a member or their staff these days, you hear about Russia," the activist said. "The Russia stuff is really starting to distract people. I didn’t think that two or three months ago. Before, I think everyone thought this was the less version of Benghazi. They don’t feel that way anymore."
David McIntosh, the president of Club for Growth, said most everyone could stand fewer distractions in Washington. But he said members should ignore Trump’s controversies and focus on writing laws — and that much of the blame comes from "a lack of discipline on Capitol Hill and an ineffective Congress the last few years.”
"They just need to buckle down and do their job," McIntosh said. "If they don’t pass Obamacare repeal and if they don’t pass tax cuts, Republicans could lose the majority in 2018."
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.