Republicans are facing serious doubts about their ability to enact big portions of their agenda in the wake of the collapse of their ObamaCare repeal effort and turmoil at the White House.
A week before President Trump hits the 200-day mark of his presidency, the GOP-controlled Congress and the administration are signaling a pivot to tax reform — an issue that has the potential to unify Republicans.
Yet Trump on Saturday also wrote on Twitter that Republicans should not give up the effort on healthcare. He needled Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellThe Hill’s 12:30 Report This week: Senate GOP picks up the pieces after agenda setback Trump fuels doubts over GOP’s agenda MORE (Ky.), urging the Republican leader to do away with the filibuster — an argument that has grated at the Senate GOP.
The conflicting signals, increasing friendly fire between the White House and Senate GOP and general sense of turmoil has left Republicans increasingly pessimistic about their agenda.
“The White House is providing zero leadership. Zero. If anything, they’re making things more difficult and that’s not going to change,” said former Rep. Jim Walsh (R-N.Y.), a longtime member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
In January, Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanSorry GOP, tax reform will not be easier than replacing ObamaCare Pelosi hauls in M for Dems Conservative group launches tax reform initiative MORE (R-Wis.) laid out a 200-day agenda at the joint Senate–House retreat in Philadelphia that projected House passage of ObamaCare repeal in March, a budget for fiscal year 2018 in April, tax reform by the August recess and reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program in July.
Fast forward to July 31, and all of those priorities are in limbo.
“This is clearly a disappointing moment,” McConnell said on the Senate floor moments after Sen. John McCainJohn McCainThe Hill’s 12:30 Report Drudge shares ‘Trump in a Slump’ headline Bipartisan group floats ObamaCare fixes MORE (R-Ariz.) cast the decisive vote to kill the measure.
The Senate will remain in Washington for two more weeks. The House has already left for August and will not return until after Labor Day.
Observers suggest there is blame to go around, but much is directed at the White House.
Lawmakers and strategists say Trump’s bullying style has not helped advance his ambitious agenda but instead has proved at times counterproductive.
“Trump’s hard-nosed style does not play well on Capitol Hill,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
“He insults people and threatens senators and that’s not the way to generate good will.”
Threats to Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiZinke: Reports he threatened Alaska over Murkowski vote ‘laughable’ Drudge slams McCain: ‘Corruption has so many faces’ Bipartisanship? It’s happening to secure America’s energy future MORE (R-Alaska) from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke did not change her vote against the healthcare measure.
And it was lost on no one that McCain cast the decisive vote.
One of Trump’s first shocking moments in his rise to the GOP nomination was his statement at a 2015 political event in Iowa mocking McCain’s time as a prisoner of war. Trump said he liked people “who weren’t captured.”
“The idea that Donald TrumpDonald TrumpDem campaign chief vows no litmus test on abortion CNN’s Zakaria: Trump’s win a ‘class rebellion against people like us’ Opinion | Bill O’Reilly: A media lynch mob is trying to take down Trump MORE is going to have an impact on John McCain is laughable. He said McCain was a loser for getting caught and spending 6 years in a POW camp. That kind of behavior has consequences,” said a strategist close to the GOP leadership in Congress.
The strategist said the party’s sense of teamwork was also hurt by the outbreak of fighting within Trump’s inner circle of advisers.
Those internal tensions burst out into the public when the newly appointed White House communications director blasted senior members of Trump’s team, strategist Stephen Bannon and former chief of staff Reince Priebus, in a profanity-laced interview with a reporter for The New Yorker magazine.
“When the president was engaged the week before, we got the motion to proceed,” said the strategist, referring to the successful vote Tuesday to begin debate on the healthcare bill.
As cable news programs switched their attention to the internal White House fireworks and away from the heathcare bill, focus slipped within the Senate GOP conference as well.
“If there’s open warfare between senior advisors, that hurts the ability to motivate people,” said the strategist. “It’s simply impossible for a majority party in Congress to function and deliver effectively without a strong leader at the top.”
Divisions within the White House has made it tougher for party leaders to unite the factions in the Republicans’ Senate and House conferences.
The healthcare bill died because of a relentless tug of war between moderates and conservatives in the Senate — an ideological divide that almost killed it in the House.
Another Republican strategist, Chip Saltsman, said drawing lots of media attention is not the same thing as showing political leadership.
“Being on TV doesn’t mean you’re a leader. Lots of times leaders take a behind-the-scenes role and get things done more effectively the more quiet they are,” he said.
He noted Trump hasn’t demonstrated a lot of steady, quiet work behind the scenes to get things done.
“If that’s happened, we haven’t seen it,” he chuckled.
Another GOP strategist, Brian Darling, who previously served as a senior aide to Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulThis week: Senate GOP picks up the pieces after agenda setback Trump fuels doubts over GOP’s agenda McCain returning to Arizona to start cancer treatment Monday MORE (R-Ky.), says congressional leaders should have taken more advantage of party unity immediately after Trump’s upset victory over Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham Clinton CNN’s Zakaria: Trump’s win a ‘class rebellion against people like us’ Opinion | Bill O’Reilly: A media lynch mob is trying to take down Trump Trump fuels doubts over GOP’s agenda MORE in November.
“The leadership dropped the ball. The fact that the leadership took so long to roll this bill out on the Senate floor with no real game plan to get anything passed, that was legislative malpractice,” he said.
Some Republican lawmakers have criticized the president in private for not holding a prime-time television address to make an argument to the nation why Congress should pass the healthcare reform initiative it had labored over for months.
Trump did not travel the country holding rallies to promote his party’s ambitious healthcare reform legislation as former President Barack ObamaBarack ObamaFormer Obama adviser joins Lyft’s board of directors Trump swears in new chief of staff Trump fuels doubts over GOP’s agenda MORE did in 2009, when Democrats were negotiating the Affordable Care Act.
The next major item on the agenda, tax reform, could prove as difficult as repealing and replacing ObamaCare.
There’s already staunch opposition among Senate Republicans to a core piece of the House tax reform plan: a border-adjustment tax on imports that would offset the cost of cutting corporate and individual tax rates.
Another top priority, a major infrastructure investment proposal, meanwhile, could run into opposition from conservative members of the House Freedom Caucus who are worried about the federal debt, the limit of which needs to be raised by the end of September.
There’s a good chance that Congress could come up empty handed on those two goals as well as ObamaCare, leaving them zero for three on their top priorities.
“You have three really polarized, fractionalized groups within the Republican Party in the House,” Walsh said, pointing to arch conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus, mainstream conservatives in the Republican Study Committee and moderate members from swing- and Democratic-leaning districts.
“There’s no working majority right now, so it’s hugely challenging,” he added. “With the White House in seeming total disarray, there’s a real leadership void.”
This report was updated at 7:10 a.m.