Trump faces fraught end to tempestuous year

US President Donald Trump walks on the South Lawn of the White House upon his return to Washington, on Nov 26. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US President Donald Trump returned to work at a festively decorated White House this week, facing a formidable to-do list that will decide whether his Christmas is filled with political misery or cheer.

After spending much of November in East Asia and Florida, Mr Trump returned to marbled corridors bedecked with garlands and graced by ballerinas, but also chilled by the prospect of a daunting few weeks ahead.

December sees deadlines that, if missed, could see the US government hurtle towards a shutdown and even a technical default in the new year.

The debt ceiling and government budget will be on the agenda when Mr Trump meets congressional leaders from both parties on Tuesday (Nov 28).

The meeting comes against the backdrop of a fiercely contested Dec 12 election in Alabama, which will be a bellwether for Mr Trump's support and could tilt control of the Senate away from Republicans.

Republican officials admit that controversies may split right-wing voters, handing an unlikely victory to Democrats in that deeply Republican state.

Mr Trump has thrown his weight behind party candidate Roy Moore, who has refused to withdraw despite facing a string of allegations that he molested or sexually assaulted teenage girls when he was in his 30s.

The White House says Mr Trump will not campaign with Mr Moore, but he has questioned the allegations and urged voters to oppose Democrat Doug Jones.

But some Republicans plan to vote for a "write-in candidate" whose name is not on the ballot.

Even before that, Mr Trump's first task will be to pass tax cuts, which Republicans see as absolutely vital to keep voters and donors happy.

"It will be the biggest tax reduction in the history of our country," Mr Trump said, expressing confidence on Monday.

"It will bring jobs, it will bring a lot of income coming into the country, buying product, et cetera."

With the party in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, the task should be straightforward. But little is straightforward in Washington these days.

The administration's chief salesmen, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and top economic aide Gary Cohn - both multi-millionaires - have struggled to convince the public that the tax cut will help middle class families, as Mr Trump insists.

With the details still being thrashed out, a Harvard-Harris Poll showed a majority of voters opposed, believing it will hurt them financially.

Democrats have been busy trying to portray the proposals as good for big business but bad for ordinary Americans.

The non-partisan Tax Policy Centre estimates nine per cent of taxpayers would pay more in 2019, rising to 50 per cent by 2027.

Half a dozen Republican senators have publicly expressed doubts about the tax cut plan. The House has already passed its own version.

Some are concerned that the proposals would increase the national debt by around US$1.4 trillion (S$1.89 trillion) by 2027, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.

The White House argues that the cuts will boost growth and this in turn will increase tax revenue, although most economists disagree.

With the slightest of Senate majorities, Mr Trump cannot lose more than two Republican votes.

Having so far failed to pass healthcare, immigration or infrastructure reforms, he faces a party revolt if he cannot make tax cuts law.

Top Republican Paul Ryan said the country was at "a generational defining moment".

Mr Trump will travel to Missouri on Wednesday to make the case, and to heap pressure on Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, who faces a tough re-election fight.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.