President Trump's decision to hold White House meetings with Democrats on key agenda items has sent a clear message to the GOP that it needs to get moving or he'll make deals with the minority party.
"I think the failure on repeal and replace of Obamacare in the Senate certainly wasn't a presidential failure, it was a congressional failure," Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. told the Washington Examiner. "Reminding Republicans that there is more than one party to negotiate with around here, in case you can't come to an agreement, is a good thing, not a bad thing."
President Trump invited Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to a private dinner in the White House residence Wednesday night.
Hours earlier, Trump sent a signal on how far he might be willing to go to bring Democrats in on tax reform, the next big agenda item on the GOP's list. He met with a bipartisan group of lawmakers, mostly Democrats, to begin discussing tax reform and seemed to agree with a demand made by Schumer in August that new tax cuts won't benefit the wealthy.
"The rich will not be gaining at all with this plan," Trump said, flanked by Democrats and Republicans who met with him at the White House Wednesday afternoon. "We are looking for the middle class and we are looking for jobs — jobs being the economy. So we're looking at middle class and we're looking at jobs," he said.
"I think the wealthy will be pretty much where they are, pretty much where they are. … If they have to go higher, they'll go higher," Trump added.
A top Democratic aide said Schumer and Pelosi planned to discuss with Trump their desire to pass Dream Act legislation and funding to prop up Obamacare. They also planned to talk about 2018 government spending. Democrats are angling for a standalone Dream Act bill that will legalize young adults who came to the United States illegally as children. They also want more money to shore up Obamacare, which is collapsing.
Democrats are already testing the power of their leverage beyond tax reform, and have announced they won't agree to any significant repeal of Obamacare, or accept federal funding for a southern border wall, which was a top Trump campaign promise.
Trump may have little choice but to deal with Democrats.
Republicans have not been able to move a major agenda item this year. They failed to garner enough GOP votes to advance a bill that would have partially repealed and replaced Obamacare. They are now struggling to find a Republican consensus on tax reform and were so divided on government spending, Trump sided with Democrats last week on a short-term deal to raise the debt ceiling and fund the government.
"Here, the currency of the realm is the vote," Pelosi said after victorious Democrats won the three-month debt ceiling deal, which put a fine point on the inability of Republicans to agree on major issues.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a Trump backer who often bucks the House GOP leadership, said he does not fault Trump for getting frustrated with Republicans, but he isn't worried Trump will pivot to the left.
"We do need to pick up the pace," Jordan told the Washington Examiner. "But I think the president is focused on what I am focused on, which is doing what the American people elected us to do. We've got to build the border security wall. That was an essential part of the campaign."
But the White House has already signaled it may be willing to go along with Pelosi and Schumer on immigration reform. Pelosi said Trump has assured Democrats he would sign a Dream Act bill, even though Democrats say they won't agree to funding for a border wall.
During a Christian Science Monitor breakfast this week, Trump's Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short told reporters passing Dream Act legislation would not necessarily be tied to the border wall.
Trump's negotiations with Democrats worry some GOP lawmakers, who fear he is trading away important campaign promises, including the border wall aimed at stopping illegal immigration.
"What's left of this promise that was made at nearly every campaign stop?" Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, told the Washington Examiner.
King said "it's appropriate" for Trump to meet with Democrats, but "he needs to assure conservatives that he is going to dial back and keep his campaign promises. That is the most important thing. The president should be thinking about what happens to his base."
Trump's meeting with Schumer and Pelosi took place a day after the president hosted a bipartisan dinner with senators on tax reform. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who attended the dinner, said Trump did not threaten to work with Democrats if the GOP fails to cut a tax deal, and instead wants to bring them on board for a bipartisan deal.
"It was a nice evening," said Hatch, who is overseeing the Senate's tax reform effort. "He'd like to" get Democrats, "and so would I."
Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., a staunch Trump supporter and ally, said Trump's meetings with Democrats don't bother him at all.
"We need bipartisan on tax reform," Collins said. "I applaud him for this."
But Democrats have set parameters for tax reform that do not align with the GOP and threaten to skew it to the left. Schumer has declared repeatedly that Democrats will not back a plan that cuts taxes for the wealthiest, or increases the deficit.
Democrats laid out their demands in a letter to the GOP in August. Trump's bipartisan dinner on Tuesday included the three lone Senate Democrats, up for re-election in Trump-won states in 2018, who did not sign the letter.
Right now, Republicans are optimistic that Trump's outreach effort to Democrats is a sign of what could happen if the GOP can't get its act together, and not a sign that he's done with Republicans completely.
"He's got to feel free to negotiate and break in different directions," Cole said. "It's useful and it's a good reminder to us that a president shouldn't be prisoner to any political party. Chief executives need to have that kind of flexibility."