WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, West Virginia — Congressional Republicans in sweater vests and fleeceThursday in search of a winning election-year agenda, facing the notion that the best they have to offer in 2018 may be a recitation of the tax cuts approved in 2017 and with the threat looming of another government shutdown.
The legislators had forums on topics such as infrastructure, national security and the economy — but noticeably not on immigration, the major issue that bedevils them.
Theyreliving passage of the tax bill and highlighting other GOP victories from his first year in office. But the president offered no clear strategy for resolving the immigration-and-spending standoff that produced a three-day government shutdown in January and threatens a second shutdown next week. And he offered no new policy details on infrastructure, prescription drug prices or other items he's mentioned as ripe for attention in 2018.
As for an immigration strategy, Trump said: "We have to get help from the other side, or we have to elect many more Republicans." He then proceeded to take jabs at Democrats just days after calling for bipartisan unity in his State of the Union address.
Republicans appear headed into the year with the idea that 2017 was when they got bigger items done and that 2018 will be a time to deal with necessary business, including spending and immigration. Infrastructure would likely require a sustained push from the president. The message for the midterms is expected to be the economy and tax cuts.
"Tax reform is working," said House Speaker Paul Ryan, citing investments by UPS and employee bonuses by Lowes as the latest evidence. Take-home pay is going up, while consumer confidence is at a 17-year high and unemployment at a 17-year low, Ryan said.
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation Committee, gamely told reporters that Trump's history as a developer makes him the ideal person to push a major infrastructure plan.
"He understands how to bring projects in on time and under budget," said Shuster, who added that he brought up the "elephant" in a room full of Republicans: raising the gas tax to pay for more highways.
Shuster acknowledged that a tax increase was a tough sell in an election year but said public-private partnerships such as those used by Connecticut at highway rest stops could be an alternative.
Trump mentioned a "right to try" bill to speed approval of life-saving drugs, but the plan received little or no buzz among lawmakers.
Besides tax cuts and the strong economy, Republicans said they have a not-so-secret weapon: House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who said the GOP tax bill would provide mere "crumbs" for many taxpayers.
Trump compared the remark to Hillary Clinton's 2016 description of his supporters as "deplorables," and Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, chairman of the House campaign arm, said Pelosi's words will be repeated in TV ads around the country.
"Her 'crumbs' comment is something I think we can use pretty effectively," Stivers said.
Trump claimed his first year in office was "one of the greatest years in the history of politics, in the history of our country, for a party, what we've done and what we've accomplished. I don't think it's been done."
The boast brushed over a limited legislative record beyond the tax bill. But Trump said Republicans were unified like never before and claimed he'd now fulfilled "far more promises" than he had even promised, dubbing his record: "promises plus."
But amid the optimism were nagging questions about whether lawmakers will enact immigration changes or deadlock over Trump's calls for a wall along the Mexican border and a path to citizenship for young immigrants here illegally. Meanwhile Congress faces a Feb. 8 deadline to avert another government shutdown.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised that wouldn't happen, saying, "There's no education in the second kick of a mule."
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said he doubted there will be a unified Republican approach on immigration, noting that House and Senate Republicans have vastly different visions on the bill. And while there was no formal immigration session on the agenda, Lankford and other lawmakers said the issue has come up frequently in informal talks among lawmakers.
"There's a lot of dialogue happening in the hallway" on immigration, Lankford said, adding that he hopes the GOP will coalesce around a White House framework Trump outlined last week and reiterated during his State of the Union address.
Trump claimed that if Democrats don't agree to the immigration framework he's presented, it will be because they want the issue to animate voters in the 2018 midterm elections.
"It's now an election issue that will go to our benefit, not their benefit," he said.
Days after calling on both parties to come together, Trump criticized Democrats for the less than enthusiastic reception they gave his 80-minute State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill.
"They sat there stone cold, no smile, no applause," Trump said, suggesting that "perhaps they'd rather see us not do well than see our country do great."
Earlier Thursday, Trump lashed out at Democrats on Twitter, castigating them for failing to support his agenda.
"They Resist, Blame, Complain and Obstruct - and do nothing," he wrote.
House GOP leaders need to advance another temporary government-wide funding bill next week — the fifth since September — to avert another government shutdown. GOP conservatives and defense hawks are restless, however, and there could be some white-knuckle moments.