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Trump gets icy reception as he tries to influence final days of lame-duck Congress

"He's looming over everything, as he always does," said one senior Republican aide.
President Donald Trump speaks to reporters at the White House on Thursday.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s last-minute demand to scrap an internet liability law using a bill that authorizes the military to function earned a frosty reception from his party, raising questions about his influence on Capitol Hill amid a flurry of activity before Christmas.

In a pair of tweets Tuesday evening, Trump threatened to "unequivocally VETO" the National Defense Authorization Act unless Congress repeals a law commonly known as Section 230, which shields online publishers from liability for what others post on their sites.

Trump has increasingly complained about the law as platforms like Twitter fact-checked his posts before and after the election.

Much of Trump's energy has been directed at trying to overturn the results of the election, in which he was defeated by President-elect Joe Biden, and his Twitter feed has focused more on lobbing unsubstantiated claims of a rigged election than securing agreement on legislation like coronavirus aid, government funding and military authorization.

Senate Armed Services Chair James Inhofe, R-Okla., a Trump ally, rejected the president's demand, telling reporters in the Capitol that “230 has nothing to do with the military” and should be dealt with separately.

“That's not a part of the bill,” he said on Wednesday, adding that he has said the same to Trump.

Inhofe’s view is shared by numerous Republican allies of Trump, including Senate Majority Whip John Thune of South Dakota, Rep. Chip Roy of Texas and Rep. Paul Mitchell of Michigan.

The swift pushback comes as Congress tries to tackle a lengthy year-end to-do list that will require Trump's signature, including Covid-19 relief and averting a government shutdown by the Dec. 11 deadline.

“He’s looming over everything, as he always does,” said one senior Republican aide.

Trump maintains high approval ratings among Republican voters, which has made some lawmakers squeamish about crossing him. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., a frequent critic of tech companies, backed Trump's call to combine Section 230 repeal with the NDAA.

Some Republican aides privately wondered if the president is serious about his veto threat, or if he would change his mind, as he has done in the past.

“I don’t think that will occur,” Senate Commerce Committee Chair Roger Wicker, R-Miss said of a possible veto.

Others in the party are hopeful Trump can be convinced that completing the year-end items would boost his image.

“We’re at about a 50-year streak of getting an NDAA done. It’s important,” Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., told NBC News. “I think there’s great opportunities for the president to help us get a year-end funding bill done, to get a follow up to the CARES Act — that may be in the funding bill — done, and let that be a great legacy.”

Some senators said it’s possible the defense bill could pass Congress with veto-proof majorities, which would deal Trump an embarrassing defeat on his way out if he vetoed the bill only to have Congress override him.

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., circulated a proposal among Republicans to restart talks on Covid-19 relief, after telling reporters it is based on what he believes Trump is willing to sign. He said that if such a deal materializes, it would likely be attached to the government funding bill that must pass by Dec. 11 to avoid a shutdown.

But Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said the Trump administration’s role has diminished on Covid-19 aid.

“In terms of a coronavirus bill, I don’t think the White House is playing as large of a role as it did before the election,” he said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a joint statement Wednesday that they've invited McConnell to restart talks. They said the $908 billion bipartisan bill introduced this week should be the basis for negotiations.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who helped craft the bipartisan outline, said he doesn't know "where the president will land," but he "would anticipate" that Trump can be persuaded because the new plan is "about half as expensive" as a different proposal the White House backed.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said Republican senators are working to get Trump on board.

Lawmakers and staff involved in crafting government funding legislation say the negotiations have been proceeding smoothly. Yet there remains the fear that Trump could issue last-minute demands that threaten its timely passage.

“He’s so mercurial that there is that risk,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. “But there’s a case to be made that he’d just as soon go out on a high note having done something, than having simply been a cause of further pain, obstruction and illness.”

Senate Finance Ranking Member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Trump is using his final weeks to exact revenge over “grudges” and that Covid-19 relief is “far from his priority list.”

“He’s angry about the fact that he lost the election and he’s trying to bring his grudges in any area, however unrelated,” he said. “Trump has one interest above all else here in the last week, which is himself.”