Heralding a “new chapter of American greatness,” US President Donald Trump stood before Congress for the first time and issued a broad call for overhauling the nation’s health care system, significantly boosting military spending and plunging $1 trillion into upgrading crumbling infrastructure.
Striking an optimistic tone, Trump declared: “The time for small thinking is over.”
Trump’s address came at a pivotal moment for a new president elected on pledges to swiftly shake up Washington and follow through on the failed promises of career politicians. His opening weeks in office have been consumed by distractions and self-inflicted wounds, including the bungled roll-out of a sweeping immigration and refugee executive order that was blocked by the courts.
Ahead of the signing of a revamped order, Trump said: “It is not compassionate but reckless, to allow uncontrolled entry from places where proper vetting cannot occur.”
WATCH: Trump’s first speech to Congress
Trump sent unexpectedly mixed messages on immigration, one of his signature campaign issues. He pledged to vigorously target people living in the US illegally who “threaten our communities and prey on our citizens.” But he told news anchors before his speech that he was open to legislation that could provide a pathway to legal status, and he told Congress he believed “real and positive immigration reform is possible.”
The president was greeted by enthusiastic applause as he entered the House chamber, though it was filled with Democrats who vigorously oppose his policies and many Republicans who never expected him to be elected. Most Republican lawmakers have rallied around him since the election, hopeful that he will act on the domestic priorities they saw blocked during President Barack Obama’s eight years in office.
Topping that list is undoing Obama’s signature health care law and replacing the sweeping measure. Trump offered a basic blueprint of his priorities, including ensuring that those with pre-existing conditions have access to coverage, allowing people to buy insurance across state lines and offering tax credits and expanded health savings accounts to help Americans purchase coverage.
He suggested he would get rid of the current law’s requirement that all Americans carry insurance coverage, saying that “mandating every American to buy government-approved health insurance was never the right solution for America.”
Democrats, now firmly ensconced in the minority, sat silently while Republicans cheered and stood for many of Trump’s promises. Some wore blue, pro-health care buttons that read “Protect our care,” and dozens of Democratic women wore white in honour of the suffrage movement.
First lady Melania Trump sat with special guests who were on hand to amplify the president’s agenda, including the widows of two California police officers killed by a man living in the country illegally. The widow of former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia also sat alongside Mrs Trump, a reminder of the president’s well-received nomination of federal appeals court Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill Scalia’s seat.
Trump was vague in his call for tax reform, another Republican priority. He promised “massive tax relief for the middle class” and a reduction in corporate tax rates, but glossed over how he would offset the cuts.
The president also urged Congress to pass a $1 trillion infrastructure package financed through both public and private capital.
Main themes of Trump’s speech to Congress
Trump promised new steps shortly to “keep out those who would do us harm” and said his administration had been working on improved vetting procedures. He said the vast majority of people convicted for terrorism-related offences since the attacks on September 11, 2001, had come from outside the United States and vowed the country should not “become a sanctuary for extremists”.
He said the United States should switch away from lower-skilled immigration and adopt a merit-based system, adding that Republicans and Democrats could work together to achieve immigration reform as long as it focused on improving jobs and wages and strengthening the country’s security.
Construction of a wall on the US-Mexico border will begin soon, Trump said. Throughout his election campaign and in the first weeks of his presidency, Trump said Mexico would pay for the wall, but he made no mention of that on Tuesday.
Trump called on Congress to repeal and replace Obamacare. He said reforms should lower the cost of healthcare and ensure people with pre-existing conditions have access to coverage.
He proposed tax credits and expanded health savings accounts for people to purchase health insurance. Legal reforms should also protect patients and doctors from unnecessary costs that drive up the price of insurance, he said.
Trump vowed “historic” reform to reduce the corporate tax rate to make US companies more globally competitive and promised “massive” tax relief for the middle class. He gave no new details on the tax reforms he would like to see and made no mention of a border adjustment tax that lies at the heart of a Republican proposal in the House of Representatives.
Trump said Congress will be asked to approve legislation for a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure, financed through both public and private channels. “Buy American” and “Hire American” will be the guiding principles, he said.
Defence spending and foreign policy
Trump promised to send to Congress a budget to rebuild the military, billing it as one of the largest-ever increases in defence spending. He vowed to work with US allies, including in the Muslim world, to destroy Islamic State, describing the radical militant group as a “network of lawless savages.”
He vowed support for Nato but said US partners must meet their financial obligations. He also reaffirmed “our unbreakable alliance” with Israel.
Additional reporting by Reuters and The Washington Post
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