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Why the White House's 'welfare reform' focus matters

Donald Trump keeps emphasizing his interest in "welfare reform," but the White House's definition of the phrase may not be what you think it is.
Image: US President Donald J. Trump hosts former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger
epa06257124 US President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks to members of the news media while hosting former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (not pictured)...

Ahead of the House Republicans' vote yesterday on the regressive GOP tax plan, Donald Trump traveled to Capitol Hill to help apply a little 11th-hour pressure. The president's remarks weren't recorded, but by all accounts, he made a rather predictable pitch in support of the party's far-right efforts on tax policy.

But the Washington Post took note of something else Trump reportedly told his House allies.

Trump thanked party leaders, expressed optimism about the Senate bill, and said he believed that Congress ought to move to "welfare reform" after completing the tax bill, according to several members in the room.

The Hill had a related report, quoting unnamed House GOP members who said Trump specifically brought up welfare reform as of one his priorities. The article added, "The welfare line got a big applause, with one lawmaker describing it as an 'off-the-charts' reception."

And while I'm sure the president was delighted by the applause, the political world needs to understand what the White House means by "welfare reform" -- because it may not mean what everyone thinks it means.

The phrase immediately conjures up memories of 1996 and Bill Clinton's compromise with a Republican Congress that overhauled the nation's safety net, but in Trump World, "welfare reform" doesn't appear to be focused on initiatives such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and related policies. Indeed, there's not much more to reform on this front.

So what do Trump and his team mean when they use the phrase? As we discussed last week, Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council at Trump's White House, shed some light on the subject when he sat down with CNBC's John Harwood.

HARWOOD: Are you thinking that you'll deal with that Social Security/Medicare/baby boomer retirement issue later by entitlement reform that reduces benefits?COHN: Look, the president on the economic front laid out three core principles. Number one was [regulatory] reform, number two was taxes and number three was infrastructure. We're working our way methodically through [regulatory] reform, taxes and infrastructure. I think when he gets done with those, I think welfare is going to come up. That's our near-term economic agenda right now.

Note how "welfare" came in response to a question about social-insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare.

These fights don't appear to be imminent -- the GOP's tax plan is clearly the party's front-burner issue -- but it looks like Trump World is laying the groundwork now. And given the increasing frequency with which the president brings up this priority, the fight is likely to be a doozy.