President Trump outlines ambitious agenda in first address to Congress

'The time for small thinking is over,' Trump tells nation. 'The time for trivial fights is behind us.'

President Donald Trump laid out a sweeping legislative agenda for the country in his first address to Congress on Tuesday, vowing to bring back dying industries, repair crumbling infrastructure and unite a nation that remains deeply divided over his presidency.

Promising to deliver a "rebirth of hope" in cities such as Baltimore and Detroit, Trump laid out a broadly optimistic vision of the future and returned to a populist economic message that has often been overshadowed during his bumpy first month in office.

Though short on specifics, Trump used the hourlong, prime-time address to call for a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure, a merit-based immigration system, expanded treatment for drug addiction and what he described as a "massive" tax break for middle class families. He reiterated his desire to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and said its replacement would expand choice and lower costs.

"A new chapter of American greatness is now beginning. A new national pride is sweeping across our nation," Trump said during a speech that drew ovations from Republicans and stone-faced silence from most Democrats. "And a new surge of optimism is placing impossible dreams firmly within our grasp. What we are witnessing today is the renewal of the American spirit."

After weeks of pursuing change through executive orders, the administration is beginning to shift to the more difficult task of working with Congress on legislation. The to-do list is extensive, and it includes campaign promises such as repealing the health care law, investing in infrastructure, rewriting the nation's tax code and building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Reprising a theme from his campaign last year, Trump decried international investment when the nation's cities are struggling with joblessness, troubled schools and crime. Often a vocal critic of crime in cities, Trump has vowed to address the issue but did not offer a clear plan Tuesday for how he would do so.

"We've financed and built one global project after another, but ignored the fates of our children in the inner cities of Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit — and so many other places throughout our land," he said.

Trump said communities must "build bridges of cooperation and trust" between neighborhoods and police and "not drive the wedge of disunity and division."

On immigration, an issue central to his campaign and first days in office, Trump said that reform is possible. He called for a "merit-based immigration system" that would give preference to high-skilled workers who could "support themselves financially."

The speech came hours after the administration appeared to signal a change in its immigration stance, with the White House telling television networks that the president wanted to pass legislation to grant legal status to some undocumented immigrants. That would represent a major break with Republican orthodoxy, and Trump did not address it during the speech.

In a particularly emotional moment, Trump paid tribute to Senior Chief Petty Officer William "Ryan" Owens, a Navy SEAL who was killed in a raid in Yemen soon after Trump's inauguration. Trump had invited Owens' widow, who looked up to heaven with tears in her eyes during an extended ovation from members of Congress.

Questions have continued to mount about the operation, conceived by the Obama administration, and Owens' father has been critical of the mission. Trump defended the operation during his address, saying it "generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future."

White House officials began to engage with Capitol Hill on pending legislative matters this week by providing the bare outlines of a proposed budget that they said would direct billions more to the military while cutting significantly from non-defense programs. Details of how that would work — such as which programs would benefit or suffer — remain elusive, and some Republicans have expressed hesitation.

Lack of a concrete agenda has forced members of both parties to guess at how the administration will synthesize an ambitious roster of campaign promises with the political realities in Washington. Even those Democrats who have expressed a willingness to seek areas of common ground with the new administration struggle to identify where those compromises may be made.

Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, questioned experts on the state of Iraq during a committee hearing Tuesday. But the hearing was hampered, he said, by the fact that no one is entirely clear about Trump's plan for the country or the battle against Islamic State fighters there.

"It's difficult to understand how they're doing policy at this stage — and what that policy is," Cardin said. "We don't know. They're really slow in developing a mechanism where we have clear understanding of where they want to take this nation."

Also uncertain is how and when Republicans will replace the 2010 "Obamacare" law, an issue that has driven angry Democrats to town hall meetings with members of Congress across the country. The Trump administration has sent conflicting signals over health care, and Republican lawmakers have been unable to speak with one voice on whether they will repeal the law or simply make changes to it.

Trump said Tuesday that a replacement should ensure that people with pre-existing conditions can access insurance, a central tenant of the Affordable Care Act. But he also said requiring people to buy coverage or face a tax penalty was "never the right solution for America.

"The way to make health insurance available to everyone is to lower the cost of health insurance," he said. "And that is what we will do."

Yet congressional Republicans indicated that the administration remains far from having a specific plan in place.

"The goal is for the administration, the House and the Senate to be in the same place. We're not there yet," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on Tuesday. "There's a lot of discussion about how to craft that, what combination of legislation and regulation will get us to where we want to get."

Trump, who ran for the presidency on a promise to drain the Washington "swamp," must figure out how to work with congressional Republicans to achieve some of those goals. That effort is not helped by his approval rating, which in its first days is lower at than the start of any modern presidency.

White House officials and Trump had framed the address as an opportunity to refocus on the economic message that was key to his campaign. The administration has spent much of its first weeks instead talking about a travel ban on predominantly Muslim nations that was struck down in court and about the early resignation of a national security adviser — while warring with the media over internal leaks.

The administration has had successes, as well. Trump received praise from Republicans for choosing Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the Supreme Court vacancy — a conservative who has drawn criticism from Democrats mainly for not being Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama's long-stalled nominee.

Trump's choice of Army Lt. General H.R McMaster as his new national security adviser was also well received by members of both parties.

The president has moved quickly to roll back Obama-era regulations that businesses say have been harmful to their operations. Hours before his address, he signed an executive order in the Oval Office that put on hold rules approved in 2015 that gave the Environmental Protection Agency power to regulate more waterways under the 1972 Clean Water Act.

Though that move was criticized by environmentalists, it was consistent with what candidate Trump vowed to do during his campaign last year against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

"The time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us," Trump said. "We just need the courage to share the dreams that fill our hearts, the bravery to express the hopes that stir our souls and the confidence to turn those hopes and dreams to action."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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