WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump has told Congress he was open to immigration reform, shifting from his harsh rhetoric on illegal immigration in a speech that offered a more restrained tone than his election campaign and first month in the White House.

Trump, in a prime-time address to a country that remains divided over his leadership, set aside disputes with Democrats and the news media to deliver his most presidential performance to date, seeking to regain the confidence of Americans rattled by his leadership thus far. Donald Trump pledged a "renewal of the American spirit", as he fleshed out his America-first agenda in a more measured presidential tone during the landmark speech. Transposing hardline campaign promises into a presidential key, Trump offered the most restrained and detailed explanation yet of his America-first world view.

He criticized threats against Jewish community centers and condemned the seemingly racially-motivated killing of an Indian immigrant, answering calls for him to speak out. And although the 70-year-old again promised a hard line on illegal immigration, he outlined his policies in less-inflammatory economic terms, winning sustained applause from the Republican-dominated Congress.

"By finally enforcing our immigration laws, we will raise wages, help the unemployed, save billions and billions of dollars, and make our communities safer for everyone," he said.

The president's speech was long on promises but short on specifics on how to achieve a challenging legislative agenda that could add dramatically to budget deficits. He wants a healthcare overhaul, broad tax cuts and a $1 trillion public-private initiative to rebuild degraded roads and bridges.

Trump built a base of support behind his presidential campaign by vowing to fight illegal immigration. In his speech, he took a more moderate tone, appealing to Republicans and Democrats to work together on immigration reform.

He said it was possible if both Republicans and Democrats in Congress were willing to compromise, although he also said US immigration should be based on a merit-based system, rather than relying on lower-skilled immigrants.

Comprehensive immigration reform eluded his two predecessors, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican George W. Bush, because of deep divisions within Congress and among Americans over the issue. Trump said reform would raise wages and help more struggling families enter the middle class.

"I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible, as long as we focus on the following goals: to improve jobs and wages for Americans, to strengthen our nation's security, and to restore respect for our laws," said the Republican president.

Trump's first month in office was dominated by a fight over his temporary travel ban on people from seven Muslim-majority nations, repeated attacks on the news media and harsh personal criticism of judges who blocked his immigration order.

In his speech on Tuesday, he appeared to look for a reset, trying to move past a chaotic period that sowed doubts about his ability to govern effectively. "The time for trivial fights is behind us," he said.

Financial markets showed a muted reaction as Trump gave few specifics or new details.

Early signs showed Trump's speech drew a positive response. A CNN/ORC poll found 57 percent of viewers thought Trump's speech was very positive and 69 percent said they felt more optimistic about the future of the country.

"He's lost his foot and mouth disease," said Tom Beckwith, 71, of Seminole, Florida. "This was a tremendous speech. He's cured."

US House, Senate letters back Asia military funding proposal

A bipartisan group of US members of Congress has backed a proposal for $7.5 billion of new military funding for US forces and their allies in the Asia-Pacific region, where tensions have risen over China’s territorial ambitions and military buildup.

Five members of the US House of Representatives and eight senators from both the Democratic and Republican parties wrote to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to support the Asia-Pacific Stability Initiative (ASPI) proposed in January by John McCain, chair of the Senate Armed Service Committee.

Copies of the letters were seen by Reuters. Their signatories include members of the armed services committees in both houses of Congress.

McCain’s proposal calls for $1.5 billion annually for five years to 2022 to boost US munitions stocks in the region, build new military infrastructure, such as runways, and help allies and partners increase their capabilities.

The House letter urged Mattis to incorporate McCain’s proposal in the fiscal 2018-22 defense budgets.

“The Asia-Pacific region holds many interests for US foreign policy that will require our government to continue to prioritize our time, energy and resources there,” it said.

The letter called former President Barack Obama’s policy of giving precedence to the Asia-Pacific “sound” and it was “critical” that this be continued under President Donald Trump.

It expressed concern about “the eroding military and economic balance that is the result of the People’s Republic of China’s two-decade military modernization, combined with the effect of years of sequestration on the US military and our foreign policy apparatus.”

The Senate letter also expressed concern about increasing Russian activity in the region and North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

“ASPI will show both allies and adversaries that the US remains committed to ensuring peace and security in a region that contains the world’s three largest economies, four most populous countries, six of the world’s largest armies, and five of the seven US mutual defense agreements,” it said.

Trump has vowed to take a tougher line with China and to build up the US military, although it is unclear whether he will succeed in lifting caps on defense spending that have been part of “sequestration” legislation.

China is due to announce its defense budget for this year this weekend, and its navy is likely to secure significant new funding as Beijing seeks to check US dominance of the high seas and step up its projection of global power.

 

 

 

Still, there was plenty of evidence of ongoing partisan divisions. In the chamber of the House of Representatives where Trump spoke, Democrats sometimes sat in silence and turned their thumbs down at his remarks. Many women lawmakers wore white in a subtle show of protest.

Democratic Senator Christopher Coons of Delaware called Trump's speech one of "the most coherent public addresses he's given in a month."

But Coons said he viewed Trump’s forthcoming budget proposals as “gravely concerning," citing the president's plan for paying for a defense buildup by cutting foreign aid and other programs.

Much of Trump's speech focused on solving problems at home in line with his "America first" rhetoric. Apart from criticizing Obama for increasing the national debt, Trump did not mention the federal budget deficit, which will severely limit any new spending programs.

On immigration, Trump again pledged to build a wall on the US-Mexico border, but he made no mention this time of Mexico paying for it. He also said he would “shortly take new steps to keep our nation safe,” referring to a new executive order he is to sign to replace one embroiled in the courts.

Trump focused part of the speech on foreign policy, stressing his support for NATO but insisting allies pay more for their defense.

In a possible nod to his bid to warm relations with Russia, which he did not mention by name, Trump said: "America is willing to find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align."

Trump has been criticized for his praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin. A US congressional committee is investigating contacts between Trump's election campaign and Russia to see if there were any inappropriate communications.

"We want harmony and stability, not war and conflict," said Trump, who said, however, he would embark on a big defense buildup.

Trump said he wanted to provide "massive tax relief" to the middle class and cut corporate tax rates. But he did not offer specifics and failed to comment on the most pressing tax issue facing Congress, a proposed border adjustment tax to boost exports over imports.

Lawmakers have been looking to Trump for more leadership on an issue that has divided corporate America and Republicans in Congress.

Trump called on the Republican-led Congress to repeal and replace Obamacare with reforms that expand choice, increase access and lower costs.

Republicans remain divided on how to accomplish that goal and Democrats vehemently oppose tampering with a system that provides health insurance for millions of low-income Americans.

While Trump's comments lacked detail, it was the first time he publicly supported tax credits to help Americans purchase their own coverage, a nod to health insurers who say they are necessary to keep people in the market.

Former Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear said in the Democratic response to Trump's speech that "you and your Republican allies in Congress seem determined to rip affordable health insurance away from millions of Americans who most need it."

In the most emotional moment of the night, Trump singled out Carryn Owens, the widow of U.S Navy SEAL William "Ryan" Owens, who was killed in a raid on al Qaeda in Yemen.

Owens, tears streaming down her face, clasped her hands and looked upward from her spot in the balcony as lawmakers and the president applauded her in the longest ovation of Trump's hour-long speech.

Trump said the mission that her husband participated in obtained vital intelligence that could be used against the militants, taking issue with news reports quoting US officials who said little was gained from the raid.