White House

Trump — not lawmakers — set to be biggest challenge for new legislative affairs chief Ueland

No matter who runs Hill shop, president’s approach is ‘very unlikely to yield results,’ expert says

Wyoming Sen. Michael B. Enzi, right, introduces Eric Ueland at his confirmation hearing to be under secretary of State for management in September 2017. That nomination was later withdrawn, but Ueland will be President Donald Trump’s third legislative affairs director, starting Monday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Eric Ueland, hand-picked by President Donald Trump to be his third legislative affairs director, has decades of experience in the D.C. “swamp” his soon-to-be boss loathes. But the former senior GOP aide will quickly learn it is the president alone who is, as one official put it Thursday, “the decider.”

Ueland has been chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and a Senate Budget Committee staff director. Experts and former officials describe him as highly qualified for the tough task of being the messenger between Trump and a Congress with a Democrat-controlled House that regularly riles up the president and a Senate where Republicans lack votes to pass most major legislation.

But they doubt Trump will cede many points or delegate many decisions — tactical or substantive — to the 53-year-old Portland, Oregon, native. So do White House officials.

“Eric Ueland is not coming to set the agenda. The president sets the agenda. He’s ‘the decider,’” said one White House official, granted anonymity to be candid. “Certainly, we will lean on his expertise with issues that will need to be addressed like the debt ceiling, like spending caps.”

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“We can’t and shouldn’t ignore his experience,” the official added. “But at the end of the day, it’s the Senate majority leader, the speaker of the House and, of course, the president who make the decisions in this town.”

Norman Ornstein of the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute noted that Trump himself has shown up at the end of negotiations involving his aides and congressional Republicans and Democrats and pulled the plug. Those aides have included Ueland’s predecessors as legislative affairs director — Marc Short,  now Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, and the outgoing Shahira Knight.

“Just look at the 2017 Senate immigration bill that was bipartisan — until the president blew it up,” Ornstein said. “In this very non-typical White House, if you’re the chief of staff, you’re just not going to be able to send your legislative director up to the Hill and say, ‘Go cut a deal,’ because it’s just not going to hold.”

The White House touted Ueland’s “more than two decades of experience serving on Capitol Hill,” with one official echoing experts in calling him “respected” by members and aides in both parties.

But several senior Democratic sources declined to comment, saying they and their bosses don’t know Ueland well enough to weigh in. Since Trump took office, Democratic aides have griped that even if Short or Knight appeared to be negotiating honestly and listening to their side’s demands, they never could be sure either spoke for Trump.

What’s more, the White House last year withdrew Ueland’s nomination for a senior State Department management position, with a spokeswoman for Senate Foreign Relations member Jeff Merkley of Oregon telling The Oregonian that too many panel members had “serious doubts about Eric Ueland’s ability to achieve the tasks that the country needs” in that role.  (Another Merkley spokeswoman did not respond to a query seeking more information Thursday.)

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Not an easy role

To be sure, the position is a “thankless” one, as Ornstein put it. Lawmakers, including top Democrats, often complained that they rarely heard from President Barack Obama’s legislative affairs office.

But even if Ueland wins the trust of some Democratic members, experts say the odds of major legislation moving any time soon are scant — even though the White House official said Trump wants his incoming bill boss to try and negotiate deals on lowering prescription drug prices, and get both chambers to approve a proposed trade pact with Mexico and Canada and an infrastructure overhaul “pending investigations” by House Democrats that Trump wants to end before any deal-making.

What’s more likely, experts say, is Ueland will spend most of his time trying put out fires related to some House Democrats’ push for impeachment proceedings and growing bipartisan backlash over Trump’s tariff wars. And that is even before the White House and Congress will have to address the federal debt ceiling and battle anew over the president’s demand for more funding for his proposed southern border wall.

“Major legislation is unlikely to reach the president’s desk unless he sends a strong signal to Senate Republicans that the is prepared to support real compromises,” said William Galston, a former Clinton White House aide, now with the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution. “The best way to send such a signal is for the White House to make serious proposals — on infrastructure, for example. Up to now, the administration has opted to sit back and let Congress take the lead, a strategy that is very unlikely to yield results.”

But with the 2020 election approaching, the president may not be as eager to push for major election, Galston said. 

“Trump is completely unwilling to do anything that might reduce enthusiasm in his base—the likely result of serious compromises,” he said.

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