A Republican president meets with a freshman congressman from Kansas and urges him to support a major tax bill, but the Kansan won’t budge even as other GOP lawmakers join in pressuring him.
The president is Ronald Reagan. And the Kansas congressman is Pat Roberts, who served the first of his 36 years in Congress in 1981, the first year of Reagan’s presidency.
President Donald Trump, who will reach his 100th day as president Saturday, is the sixth president that Roberts, 81, has served alongside as a member of the U.S. House or Senate.
Roberts, a Dodge City Republican, called Trump “the most unique president we’ve had since Teddy Roosevelt.”
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Roberts gave Trump high marks for his early forays into foreign policy and the successful confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, but he also noted that he wishes the president wouldn’t tweet so much.
Few people have had the opportunity to observe as many presidents as closely as Roberts, who began his career as a congressional aide when Lyndon Johnson occupied the Oval Office in 1967.
Roberts proudly noted that he’s one of the only members of Congress who met Dwight Eisenhower, marching in the fellow Kansan’s inaugural parade in 1953 when Roberts’ father was chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Reagan stands out in Roberts’ mind for his ability “to get things done,” and he points to the meeting from Reagan’s second year in office as an example.
Reagan, who had ushered in a tax cut in his first year, agreed to raise taxes the following year as part of a budget deal with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts based on the promise of reduced federal spending.
Roberts was one of several freshman Republican holdouts who put the bill’s chances of passage in peril.
Feeling the pressure from the president at the meeting, Roberts made up a lie that he couldn’t support the tax bill because it would disappoint his mother, a lifelong Republican. When he got back to his office, he had a message that he and his mother, Ruth, were invited to the White House the following morning.
“I said, ‘Ruth, get on your best dress. We’re going to the White House tomorrow at 10 o’clock.’ And she said, ‘Son, what have you done?’ ” Roberts recalled.
Reagan charmed his mother in five minutes, Roberts said, but he remained a holdout until he got a phone call from his former boss and predecessor Keith Sebelius, who called Roberts at Reagan’s behest.
“It was during the vote for the $100 billion, and I was still going to vote no, that I got a call from Keith Sebelius. And he was very ill with prostate cancer and it was in the last three weeks of his life and he said, ‘I never got a chance to vote with a president. Be a team guy. Vote with the president,’ ” Roberts said. “So with tears in my eyes I cast a yes vote.”
Among Democratic presidents in his tenure, Roberts rated Bill Clinton as the most skillful in working with Congress.
“He knew everybody’s name. He had a very distinct handshake and he was a consummate politician in a good sense of the word. And he worked with Republicans,” Roberts said.
“He took a lot of credit,” Roberts added with a laugh. “We always thought that we got the job done, but he took the credit. He was very skillful.”
Roberts is not a fan of using the first 100 days as a benchmark for a presidency’s success, a concept that dates back to Franklin Roosevelt’s first year in office during the Great Depression.
“I think it’s a mistake to publicize or to try to set a marker for the first 100 days. I mean, what’s that all about? You could say 101 days or 150,” he said.
Roberts noted that Reagan struggled to get some of his agenda through Congress early in his presidency. “It wasn’t until later that his genius really appeared,” Roberts said.
However, Roberts highlighted several accomplishments from Trump’s first few months in office that make him optimistic about Trump’s presidency.
He pointed to the Trump administration’s successful negotiation this month to free Aya Hijazi, a U.S. citizen who had been incarcerated in Egypt since 2014. Egypt also freed Hijazi’s husband and four other international charity workers who had been imprisoned with her.
“I think the president has really shown some real leadership there,” Roberts said after comparing it to the release of the American hostages from Iran in Reagan’s first month in office.
“We have a new Supreme Court justice,” Roberts said. “That was probably the biggest thing he’s done, or probably will be the biggest thing he’ll do in the first year at least.”
Roberts said that in one-on-one meetings he’s been struck by the president’s ability to listen, a quality he thinks will serve Trump well in meetings with foreign leaders.
“I know most people don’t think that way, but I do think he has that quality,” Roberts said. “…I think he has the ability of making people think it’s their idea and then moving along.”
Roberts dismissed the notion that Trump’s struggle to pass a repeal of the Affordable Care Act during the first 100 days represented a stumble by a president who took office without government experience. He said it reflected the complexity of health care policy.
“This was so complicated and so tough on the issues that if you simply repeal it, you’re going to have an awful lot of people without insurance unless you replace it immediately,” Roberts said, noting that GOP lawmakers are still working toward a consensus about a replacement plan.
“I don’t blame the president for trying to fulfill a campaign promise. I just don’t think anybody really figured out how difficult it would be to put together. If you push Humpty Dumpty off the wall, how do you put him back up and have a national healthcare plan that is more patient-oriented?” Roberts said.
“That’s very difficult to put together. I think we will get the job done, however. And I think we’ll get tax reform done ... but you sort of have to go through the fire first when somebody takes over.”