With 'Chuck and Nancy,' Trump opens a new playbook

Calls bipartisan meeting on tax reform

By JEREMY DIAMOND , CNN
Headline Goes Here POOL via CNN

WASHINGTON (CNN) - A week of outreach to Democratic lawmakers and leaders -- with one deal inked and a second in the works -- is offering the clearest indication yet that President Donald Trump is truly leaning into bipartisanship, breaking with the strategy that has defined nearly every executive and legislative action of his first eight months in office.

For now at least, following a series of legislative setbacks on health care reform and amid internal GOP squabbles, Trump appears to be trading in his singular reliance on Republicans in Congress in favor of dealmaking with Democrats, putting more heft behind his hopeful rhetoric of a "different relationship" with Congress this week as he's invited more Democratic lawmakers to the White House than Republicans.

A week after he sided with "Chuck and Nancy" over his own party's congressional leaders to ink a three-month deal to raise the debt ceiling, Trump appeared to be nearing his second deal with Senate and House minority leaders, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.

Over Chinese food and chocolate pie at the White House Wednesday night, Trump and the Democratic leaders agreed on the broad strokes of legislation that will grant legal status to "Dreamers," the undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children, in exchange for beefed up border security. And while White House officials on Wednesday night disputed Democrats' claim that Trump had agreed to exclude funding for a border wall in the Dreamers deal, the President on Thursday morning appeared to corroborate the Democrats' account.

"The wall will come later," Trump said, adding that he was "fairly close" to a deal on "Dreamers."

But Trump's latest attempt at dealmaking with Democrats also revealed its perils as he faced incoming fire from the hardline conservatives in his political base who just last week had cheered Trump's decision to rescind DACA, the executive order that protected Dreamers from deportation.

Trump's Wednesday night pow-wow with Democratic leaders -- who have criticized Trump at every turn -- came hours after he welcomed eight House Democrats and five House Republicans to discuss tax reform at the White House. And it also came 24 hours after he welcomed an equally split group of six GOP and Democratic senators for a dinner on the same topic.

"We should be able to come together to make government work for the people. That's why I was elected. That's why I ran," Trump said as he sat down with the House members.

Beyond immigration, Trump appeared eager to bring Democrats in on his efforts to reform the tax code, appearing even to shift the goalposts on that topic following his discussions with Democrats, signaling Wednesday that he was open to to proposals that would see the wealthiest Americans pay more -- a break with the proposals his administration was crafting with congressional Republican leaders.

Sudden turn?

The sudden turn comes after the first eight months of his presidency were defined by bitter squabbles with Democrats and a near-singular focus on policies aimed at pleasing his political base. And his efforts are being met with caution and skepticism by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Until this week, his tax reform push was devoid of Democratic input. And with the "Big Six" group of Trump administration officials and GOP congressional leaders nearing agreement on a proposal, it was unlikely an initial proposal would take Democratic ideas into account.

Even as Trump began courting moderate Democrats from states he won in 2016, the President had yet to conduct the outreach needed to overcome the 60-vote hurdle to pass bipartisan tax reform.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee who has co-authored two bipartisan tax bills, has yet to get a call from Trump, a silence Wyden called ironic.

An "awful lot of time has been frittered away" by not bringing Democrats into the fold earlier, he said.

The twist has left both Democrats and Republicans scratching their heads, unsure of the President's intentions.

"I don't think anyone on any side of the aisle can have any level of confidence on what to expect from the President," a Democratic leadership aide told CNN, noting that Trump is "quite impulsive."

A Republican leadership aide echoed the sentiment, pointing to Trump's seemingly spur-of-the-moment decision last week to side with Democrats -- over the objections of Republican leaders and his own Treasury secretary -- on a three-month deal that was widely panned by Capitol Hill Republicans.

While Republicans are still trying to divine the motives behind Trump's outreach, many are not altogether surprised given Trump's campaign promises to cut deals once he got to Washington -- and to compromise.

"It's Trump," the Republican leadership aide said. "He was never really bound to one party or another."

Democrats haven't had a seat at the table on tax reform as Republicans prepared to pass their proposals on a party-line basis, using the budget reconciliation process. Now, the White House is signaling a preference for a bipartisan deal.

"The President has been clear that his preference is to get tax reform done on a bipartisan basis," White House legislative affairs director Marc Short said Tuesday.

Republican support in the Senate was "not reliable" amid the Obamacare repeal debacle, prompting Trump to pursue Democrats, Short said. Those comments came despite White House officials promising for weeks the GOP-only budget reconciliation process would be the vehicle for tax reform.

'Why is he doing that?'

Some Republicans said they have only themselves to blame for the party's divisions, pointing to the Senate's failure to deliver the President enough votes to repeal Obamacare.

"Why is he doing that? Because he got rolled on Obamacare. We didn't come through with anything," said Rep. David Brat, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

Republican Rep. Tom MacArthur of New Jersey said he didn't fault Trump for cutting a deal with Democrats.

"I think he sent a strong message to Congress, 'Get things done or I'll work with other people,' " MacArthur said.

Republican Sen. John Thune, who attended the bipartisan dinner on Tuesday night, echoed that sentiment and said Senate Republicans' failure to deliver the votes on health care reform is now shaping Republicans' thinking.

"We have to get our act up here. We need to be able to deliver the votes," Thune said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."

While skepticism about the President's commitment to a bipartisan path abounded in Washington on Wednesday, the Republicans and Democrats who attended the Tuesday night dinner seemed confident. They called the dinner meeting productive and substantive, signaling Trump's talk of bipartisanship might go beyond rhetoric and a three-month debt and budget deal.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, the North Dakota Democrat whose state overwhelmingly voted from Trump in 2016, even said the White House dinner "cemented" her decision to run for reelection in 2018, which she officially announced Wednesday.

"There is a real opportunity for those who want to find compromise in this country," Heitkamp said Wednesday on a local radio show.

The Democratic leaders heading to the White House on Wednesday night signaled other issues would animate their dinner with the President, but it was unclear whether Trump might bring up tax reform himself.

Some Republicans have questioned whether Trump has extended his hand toward Democrats not in the hopes of bipartisanship, but rather to increase the pressure on Republicans to deliver -- or risk more Democrat-aligned dealmaking.

Trump wasn't prepared to tip his hand on Wednesday.

"We're going to give it a shot," Trump said Wednesday of the bipartisan approach. "And if it works out, great. And if it doesn't work out great, hopefully we'll be able to do it anyway, as Republicans, OK?"

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