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Trump's legislative agenda sputters amid Russia cloud

Republicans were bullish at the start of Donald Trump's presidency about winning wholesale changes to health care, remaking the tax system and rebuilding America's infrastructure.

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Dan Merica (CNN)

Republicans were bullish at the start of Donald Trump's presidency about winning wholesale changes to health care, remaking the tax system and rebuilding America's infrastructure.

Nearly five months in, though, little of that has happened.

Trump's legislative agenda is stalled on Capitol Hill, thwarted by a mix of swirling controversies and overall dysfunction regarding his campaign's connections to Russia, the firing of FBI Director James Comey and his off-the-cuff style that has Republicans regularly responding to the controversy du jour, not passing legislation.

Trump's top aides are now acknowledging the problem.

"There's no doubt that keeping members focused on investigations detracts from our legislative agenda and detracts from what we're trying to deliver to the American people," Marc Short, Trump's White House director of legislative affairs, told reporters on Monday.

Short's blunt comments echo what Republicans in the White House and on Capitol Hill have said in private about the continual drip, drip, drip of controversies coming from the White House. With only so many hours to work each week, the controversies have forced Capitol Hill Republicans to spend time responding to Trump stories and protecting the party, leaving them largely unable to move legislation through a contentious Congress.

Trump's flagging approval rating -- 37% in the most recent Gallup poll -- is at or near historic lows for this early in his presidency, have not helped the issue. Public disapproval has hardened Trump's opposition, giving Democrats hope for the future and has provided some Republicans the ability to stand up to the President when needed.

To spur his legislative agenda, Trump will meet with House Speaker Paul Ryan, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Majority Whip Steve Scalise, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn Tuesday afternoon, according to a White House official.

The meeting will focus on health care, tax reform and next steps in the President's agenda, Short said.

These congressional leaders also have their futures on the line. Failing to get much done during Trump's first year in office, when Trump's power is at its highest, could mean GOP disaster in the 2018 midterm election. Democrats, invigorated by a sputtering Trump, have already began laying out plans to target vulnerable Republicans whose future relies on Trump's popularity and effectiveness.

Later on Tuesday, Trump will have dinner with Sens. Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, Cory Gardner and Todd Young and Reps. Lee Zeldin and Francis Rooney, according to the same official. The focus of that meeting will be the President's recent foreign trip and foreign policy.

Trump's renewed focus on his legislative agenda comes days before one of the most consequential moments in Trump's presidency, when Comey heads to Capitol Hill to testify about his conversations with Trump and memos he kept about requests the President made to him. The hearing before the Senate intelligence committee could be the most watched moment of the year in Washington, largely thwarting any momentum Republicans had hoped for on tax reform or infrastructure spending.

Short said that the White House believes Trump "is often very effective in driving our message in Congress" despite the fact he does "not have a conventional of style"

"Many of his efforts are extremely helpful to us in getting our legislation accomplished," Short said.

But months into his administration, Trump's top legislative achievement is getting health care reform through the Republican controlled House, a feat that took two attempts after the first failed to garner enough conservative support.

But that is where health care's story currently stands, as the legislation has all but stalled in the Senate.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who recently met with Trump, told CNN on Monday that he didn't think health care reform will get passed by the Senate this year.

"I just don't think we put it together among ourselves," he said. "I've always believed, let Obamacare collapse, which it will and challenge the Democrats to help us fix it. That's always been my preferred route."

To combat the idea that Trump's momentum is stalled, the White House has staged a series of photo ops, including a pseudo-signing ceremony Monday that had the President putting pen to paper on a letter that urged Congress to pass a bill that privatized the nation's air traffic controllers.

Despite the fanfare, which included a speech and a ceremonial pen, Congress has no obligation to follow anything Trump signed at the event.

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