USA Politics

So far, Trump is a GOP uniter in Congress – except when he's not

Modes of thought

While President-elect Trump has made significant progress in unifying Republican leaders since his election, there are signs of persistent divisions that could thwart his agenda.

President-elect Donald Trump, Vice-President-elect Mike Pence, and House Speaker Paul Ryan wave at a rally on Dec. 13, 2016, in West Allis, Wis. That marks a stark difference with the final stage of the election campaign, when Speaker Ryan said that he would not campaign with the Republican nominee.
Morry Gash/AP
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In the weeks since Donald Trump won the presidency, many signals point to a far more unified party than was seen on the campaign trail.

Before the election, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin and Mr. Trump were at each other’s throats. Now they talk every day.

Republicans on the Hill were divided over their nominee’s goals, with some decrying them as not even conservative. Now their congressional leadership has lined up behind an early White House agenda of three basic parts: regulation rollbacks, Obamacare repeal, and tax reform.

Several of the president-elect’s key appointees also come from Congress, as does his vice president, Mike Pence. Presumably, this greases the gears of communication and policy coordination. Democrats have also said they will work with a President Trump on areas of mutual interest – like his $1 trillion rebuild of America's crumbling infrastructure.

But for every sign that gridlock will ease between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, other signs point to jam-ups. Republicans may have united on an agenda, but ideological divisions over the details have not gone away. Like their unpredictable leader, the conflict among Republicans makes it hard to foresee just how the two branches will work together.

Meanwhile, Democrats are happy to exacerbate those divisions, as a year-end budget showdown over retired coal miners showed. Democrats tried to force Trump to their side over health insurance for the miners. He didn’t take the bait.

Republicans “are unified in the sense that they want to ‘Make America Great Again.’ But they have various and differing opinions on how they want to go ahead and do that,” says John Feehery, former spokesman to GOP House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, who led the House during much of George W. Bush's presidency.

'Huge opportunity to battle big government'

Unified party control, both in the run-up and during the launch of a new administration, typically proves more productive than divided government. That certainly was true under President Obama, when Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act, an $800 billion stimulus, and Wall Street reform.

Now that the tide has turned, Republicans are excited about the possibilities that lie ahead.

Considering the president-elect’s nominees, “you are looking at a lot of people who are into decentralization, and you are looking at a lot of members of Congress who are getting pretty excited about shrinking Washington,” says Adam Brandon, president and CEO of FreedomWorks, an advocacy group that supports the hard-line Freedom Caucus in the House.

Mr. Brandon pointed specifically to a school-choice proponent to head the Department of Education; a fierce critic of Obamacare at Health and Human Services; and an opponent the Environmental Protection Agency to lead it.

In the meantime, Trump has nominated one of the founders of the House Freedom Caucus and a fierce budget hawk, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R) of South Carolina, to guide the administration’s spending as the director of the Office of Management and Budget.

“This cabinet shows, in the long run, a huge opportunity to battle big government,” says Mr. Brandon. “I’m a Cleveland Browns fan, and at the beginning of the season, you’re full of optimism.”

The flip side to that, of course, is that the Browns haven’t ended their seasons so well. And while Republicans all look to be wearing the same uniform since Trump was elected, they’re not all acting as if they’re on the same team.

Underlying divisions evident

The loudest clash has come over Russia policy. Linebackers Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina are calling for a new, bipartisan committee to investigate alleged Russian interference in the US election. Trump says the hacking could have been anyone.

They’re also pushing back on the president-elect’s choice for secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who has deep ties with Russia as the head of ExxonMobil.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky also promises a congressional investigation into Russian hacking – though he wants to use existing committees, and he supports Mr. Tillerson’s nomination.

Division is apparent, too, over repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Republicans can’t agree over the time frame for a replacement. Some, such as Freedom Caucus members, want a replacement passed by the time this Congress ends in two years. Others say it will take longer, possibly three years.

Still others in the GOP want a replacement framework in place before the ACA is repealed, which is expected in early 2017. They fear a continued exit of insurers from the marketplace exchanges if no clear path forward is outlined. This assumes that Republicans can agree on a replacement framework.

These are just two of many issues – from immigration to tariffs to Trump’s big-ticket infrastructure promises – where GOP divisions are visible, says Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank.

“When I look out at the coming Congress, I see a lot of conflict between the branches … and different views between House Republicans and Senate Republicans, and within these conferences,” she says.

“Are these lawmakers staking out positions that will eventually give way, or are these differing views going to become stumbling blocks that prevent a productive first 100 days?”

Trump is 'very, very accessible'

At some point, lawmakers will look to Trump to settle these differences, Ms. Binder points out.

Certainly the president-elect is keeping the lines of communication open – with his tweets, and also directly with lawmakers. Majority leader McConnell told reporters last week that “it’s astonishing” how many senators have been talking with Trump. “He’s very, very accessible.”

That’s good, but it could also spell trouble, says Mr. Feehery. It’s good in that lawmakers like that kind of access. The problem comes when a president tells lawmakers different things, or can’t remember all the various messages told to various lawmakers.

“If you have a president saying one thing to one person and another thing to another person, it can hurt his own credibility,” says Feehery. There’s a reason a White House establishes a process to communicate with the Hill, he says. “They want to protect the principal.”

But this principal doesn’t think much of established processes, nor is he one for detail. Whether that will break up gridlock or smooth it out is still an open question – with a lot of mixed signals and no clear answers so far.