GOP Lawmakers' Tricky Tango With Trump

GOP Lawmakers' Tricky Tango With Trump
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The complicated relationship between Donald Trump and congressional Republicans could be summed up in a day's work.

Lawmakers spent Tuesday morning defending former colleague and Attorney General Jeff Sessions against attacks from the president, who, in considering whether to fire the head of his own Justice Department, demonstrated how quickly he could turn on an ally.

That afternoon, Senate Republicans just barely scraped together the support to proceed on a measure to unravel Obamacare, a campaign promise they made and a priority of a White House in desperate need of a legislative victory.

And in the early evening, House lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in favor of sanctions against Russia, effectively tying the hands of a president who has taken a less aggressive stance toward Vladimir Putin than many in his party.

Six months into the Trump administration, Republican lawmakers are still navigating life in the majority in Washington with a president who many of them didn't support, but whose policy prerogatives and voters are largely in sync with theirs.

Self-inflicted controversies in the White House and persistent divisions within the party have stalled the agenda, and the president's low approval rating and unfamiliarity with Washington procedure have limited the impact of his bully pulpit. Some Republicans senators have shown they are more fearful of their constituents than they are the president. And Trump's treatment of Sessions, the earliest and staunchest ally of then-candidate Trump, does little to assure reluctant Republicans that the president can be a reliable partner.

"It's so easy to act presidential, but that's not going to get it done," Trump said of the change he wants to make during a Tuesday night campaign rally in Ohio, a state he won by eight points.

And yet, Republicans remain largely cautious in delivering any serious rebuke of the president. While two party senators opposed bringing a health care measure up for debate, forcing Vice President Mike Pence to issue a tie-breaking voting on the chamber floor, holdouts that Trump publicly scolded eventually came around.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, where the president held a campaign-like rally Monday night, and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, who the president chided on camera during a luncheon last week, joined their party colleagues in approving debate. And Sen. John McCain, whose war hero credentials Trump questioned during the presidential campaign, returned to the Senate floor to cast his vote just days after announcing his brain cancer diagnosis.

Still, the road ahead is long and uncertain. After voting in favor of opening debate, McCain seized the opportunity to censure his own party and the president on lack of progress.  

"We’re getting nothing done. All we’ve really done this year is confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Our health care insurance system is a mess," he said in a speech on the Senate floor following the vote. "All we’ve managed to do is make more popular a policy that wasn’t very popular when we started trying to get rid of it."

He continued: "Whether or not we are of the same party, we are not the president’s subordinates. We are his equal!"

Nevertheless, Trump embraced McCain's vote and the Senate's clearing of a key hurdle in the process. "This is the beginning of the end for the disaster known as Obamacare," the president said in the Rose Garden on Tuesday before a press conference with the Prime Minister of Lebanon.

Later in Youngstown, Ohio, a blue-collar city that Clinton narrowly won, Trump touted the Senate vote. "Finally. You think that's easy? That's not easy," he said of the passage to debate. He then ramped up the pressure for eventual legislation.

"For seven years every Republican running for office promised to repeal and replace this disastrous law. Now they must keep their promise," Trump said. "Any senator who votes against repeal and replace is telling people they are fine with the Obamacare nightmare. And they will have problems."

But Trump's discussion of the health care legislation in Ohio was limited, and he instead focused on touting campaign priorities on immigration, the border wall, jobs, and terrorism.

He made no mention of the Republican Gov. John Kasich, who has been a vocal opponent of the Senate efforts to repeal Obamacare out of concern for the future of the Medicaid expansion in his state under current law. And while he called out deficiencies in the system in various states, he did acknowledge Rob Portman, the Republican senator from Ohio who voted to proceed with the GOP measure but has continued to express concerns about its effect on Medicaid.

During a late night vote Tuesday on amendments, both Portman and Capito supported the Senate repeal and replace bill they had originally opposed, citing an added $100 billion to assist with health care coverage for low-income Americans. The measure failed, 43-57, as several Republicans voted against it.

If Republicans do wind up passing a health care measure, it could be more a reflection of a promise they made to constituents or an eagerness to show they can govern, rather than a display of Trump's sway, says Julian Zelizer, history professor at Princeton University.

For example, Portman withdrew his endorsement of Trump and was easily re-elected, running seven percentage points ahead of the president. Capito is not up for re-election in 2018, even though Trump won her state last year with 68 percent of the vote. And Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski voted against the motion to proceed, despite Trump having won her state with more support than she earned during her re-election last year. These dynamics underscore the ways in which Trump has not yet figured out how to lead lawmakers of his own party his way.

"Part of political capital is simply fear, and Republicans are trying to figure out how scared should they be of [the president]," said Zelizer. "National approval ratings matter, and suggest there is room to say 'no' to him and get away with it. And given the chaos, given his attacks, they are just leery of doing anything for him."

Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been integral to the process. On Tuesday, he urged Republicans to see the advantage of having a Republican in the White House.

"We can't let this moment slip by," he told his colleagues before Tuesday's vote. "With a surprise election comes great opportunities to do things we never thought were possible."

The White House argues the president and key staff and Cabinet members have been active in the legislative process as it pertains to the health care bill. "Having been involved in these health care conversations and debates for years, this is the greatest amount of involvement by a president that I have ever witnessed one-on-one with members of Congress -- both the House and the Senate," Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said Monday, en route to an event in West Virginia. At that event, in a speech to thousands of Boy Scouts, Trump joked that Price better secure votes from Capito and other holdouts. "Otherwise I'll say, 'Tom, you're fired!'"

Trump has said he is waiting "pen in hand" to sign a health care bill Republicans send him. He has garnered criticism from some Republicans for not doing enough to sell the substance of the GOP proposals, which have received notably poor approval ratings. Unlike his predecessor, he has not traveled the country promoting the legislation or held town halls to explain the policy points. Instead, Trump has held events with "victims" of Obamacare and hosted meals with lawmakers at the White House. In recent days, he ramped up the pressure on Twitter. And last week, he televised part of his meeting with Republican senators, telling them inaction on their part was not an option.

"It's very clear what his play is here, that if this doesn't get passed, Trump wants to make sure there are ramifications ... he's made clear in his speeches and his tweets that if this doesn't happen, it's not going to be his fault," said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and former Capitol Hill aide. "It's a very tough needle to thread with anybody other than the core Trump supporters."

Other Republicans argue that the presidency does come with some limits, particularly on health care.

"I think the president has done what presidents can be effective in doing in a situation like this, and that is: health care is not a soap box type of speech delivery. It's very complicated," former Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, who worked with President Bill Clinton on welfare reform in the 1990s, told RCP. "You can go up there and say we're going to do this and this and this, but as far as the whole legislative process in coming up with a health care bill, the president's important role is to work with members to come up with consensus that can get good policy and can get passed."

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, Trump described what he has learned about the challenges in forming consensus. “It’s a very, very difficult situation,” he said, “because you move a little to the left, and you lose four guys. You move a little bit to the right, and all of a sudden you have a bloc of people who are gone. You have a one-inch road and it wheels through the middle of the valley.”

The president's comments demonstrate the complexities of governing, even with majorities in Congress. "Politicians are self-interested -- and need to be, to survive," said Heye. "They are very cautiously weighing the pros and cons given the policies versus some of the chaos."

Alexis Simendinger contributed to this report.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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