Enough talk, time to deliver: Trump to Republican lawmakers

Demonstrators stage a "die-in" in Philadelphia near the Republican retreat venue to protest Trump ahead of his visit.VIDEO: REUTERS
US President Donald Trump is applauded by Vice-President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan as he arrives to speak at a congressional Republican retreat in Philadelphia on Jan 26, 2017.
US President Donald Trump is applauded by Vice-President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan as he arrives to speak at a congressional Republican retreat in Philadelphia on Jan 26, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

PHILADELPHIA (REUTERS) - President Donald Trump pushed Republican lawmakers on Thursday (Jan 26) for swift action on a sweeping agenda including his planned US-Mexico border wall, tax cuts and repealing Obamacare, despite tensions over timetables and priorities.

Congressional Republicans were in Philadelphia for a three-day retreat to hammer out a legislative agenda, with the party in control of the White House, Senate and House of Representatives for the first time in a decade.

"This Congress is going to be the busiest Congress we've had in decades, maybe ever," Mr Trump said in a speech to the lawmakers at a Philadelphia hotel. "Enough 'all talk, no action'. We have to deliver," Mr Trump added.

But Mr Trump did not hold an expected question-and-answer session with the lawmakers, and his speech veered into side issues such as predicting crowd size for an anti-abortion march in Washington, alleging American voting irregularities and touting winning Pennsylvania in the Nov 8 election.

House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, who initially hesitated in endorsing Mr Trump last year and has criticised him on some issues, said congressional Republicans were in sync with the president, who was sworn in less than a week ago having never previously held public office.

"We are on the same page with the White House," Mr Ryan said during a news conference with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Mr Trump pressed the lawmakers to act on lowering taxes on "all American businesses" and the middle class and to repeal former Democratic President Barack Obama's signature Affordable Care Act. Republicans have yet to agree on a replacement for the law known as Obamacare.

Republican Representative Greg Walden said he would propose a Bill next week to ensure people with existing medical conditions could still get coverage if Obamacare is repealed. That requirement is one of the most popular parts of the law.

"Insurance companies will not be able to deny health insurance to people with pre-existing conditions," Mr Walden said in a telephone interview.

For weeks, Republicans talked about formulating an agenda for the first 100 days of Mr Trump's presidency. In recent days, the talk has turned into a 200-day agenda for passing major legislation before the lawmakers' August recess.

"It's going to take more than simply 100 days," Mr Ryan said. He said he hoped to finish health and tax legislation in 2017, but did not guarantee it.

Mr McConnell said lawmakers would take up legislation to provide US$12 billion to US$15 billion (S$17.11-21.38 billion) to pay for Mr Trump's planned wall along the US-Mexico border. Mr Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday (Jan 25) for the wall to proceed, part of a package of measures aimed at curbing illegal immigration, although the action has tested already frayed relations with Mexico.

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said the pace of legislative action may frustrate Mr Trump.

"President Trump comes from a different world," Mr McCarthy told reporters. "Out in the business community, he likes things done fast, and he's going to continue to push them."

Thousands of anti-Trump protesters took to the streets in Philadelphia, a Democratic bastion that is one of the cities that could be stripped of federal funds for protecting illegal immigrants under a Trump directive.

Marchers carried signs including, "Fascist Pig", "Protect My Health Care", "Immigration Makes America Great", "Planet Over Profit" and "Impeach Trump".

During his speech, Mr Trump explained his side of a spat that led Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto to cancel a meeting next week over Mr Trump's insistence that America's southern neighbour pay for a border wall. Mexico has said it will not.

Mr Trump said a tax reform bill "will reduce our trade deficits, increase American exports and will generate revenue from Mexico that will pay for the wall, if we decide to go that route".

The White House on Thursday floated the idea of imposing a 20 per cent tax on goods from Mexico to pay for a border wall.

It said later the proposal was in the early stages, part of a "buffet of options".

Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray told reporters in Washington that taxing imports from Mexico into the United States would raise prices for "things ranging from avocados to appliances to flat-screen TVs".

Mr McConnell and Mr Ryan did not say whether Congress would offset the wall's cost by cutting other programmes or simply add to huge budget deficits that Republicans have criticised for years.

Mr Ryan and Mr McConnell also indicated congressional Republicans did not plan to modify US law banning torture even as Mr Trump considers bringing back a CIA programme for holding terrorism suspects in secret overseas "black site" prisons where interrogation techniques often condemned as torture were used.

"I think the director of the CIA (Mike Pompeo) has made it clear he's going to follow the law. And I believe virtually all of my members are comfortable with the state of the law on that issue now," Mr McConnell said.

"Torture's not legal," Mr Ryan said. "And we agree with it not being legal."

In an unusual move for a visiting foreign leader, British Prime Minister Theresa May, who will see Mr Trump in Washington on Friday (Jan 27), addressed the retreat, calling herself a "fellow conservative who believes in the same principles that underpin the agenda of your party".

She was loudly applauded for praising Mr Trump's victory.