Trump's first step to effectiveness: uniting with GOP Congress

There are some obvious areas of common ground within the party, but Trump campaigned fiercely against establishment Republicans and many of his ideas are at odds with them.

Jonathan Ernst
Vice President-elect Mike Pence (l.), shown here with Kevin McCarthy (R) of California (c.) and Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin (r.) in September, will be instrumental in helping President-elect Donald Trump work with Republicans in Congress.

For years, Americans have railed against dysfunction in Washington. Now that Republicans have stunned the nation and the world with a clean sweep of the White House and both chambers of Congress, the conventional wisdom is that this will help grease the gears and lead to a more smoothly running government.

“The best thing about Trump is, he’s likely to sign the bills that Congress passes,” says GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak, speaking about a GOP victory in advance of the election.

But the question remains as to whether this celebrity president-elect can unite his own famously fractured party. In his campaign, he flung flaming arrows at the “establishment” Republican leaders in the House and Senate, much to the delight of voters. Many of his ideas – about the border, trade, and preserving Social Security – are at odds with Republican positions in Congress, especially when it comes to spending.

“He’s neither tea party, nor is he establishment, and I think that’s really quite telling,” says Ronald Rapoport, at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. “He’s his own kind of guy and that’s really a challenge for the Republican Party.”

Common ground with House Republicans

Trump has a short window to bring Republicans, Democrats, and independents together “as one united people,” as he said in his acceptance speech in the wee hours of Wednesday morning.

Once he takes office, it will be just 22 months until the midterm test of his promised unconventional presidency. Much of his effectiveness will depend on whether he can corral Republicans on a common agenda and get past Democratic filibusters in the Senate.

There are some obvious areas of common ground within the party, a huge and early one being the Supreme Court. Trump’s list of 21 possible judges was well received among Republicans on the Hill, who welcomed it as a sign of support for “constructionist” justices who would limit judicial interpretation.

Given Democratic complaints about GOP obstruction in filling the vacancy of Antonin Scalia, Democrats “would be hard-pressed to mount a filibuster of their own, absent very solid evidence that Trump’s nominee was unqualified or espoused views way outside the judicial mainstream,” writes David Hawkings, a columnist for the publication Roll Call.

Another area of possible convergence is the tax code – simplifying and reducing taxes. That’s on Trump’s to-do list and is also a huge priority for Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, for the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Rep. Kevin Brady (R) of Texas, and for Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky – who will now be focused on building his legacy.

National security issues – rolling back the Iran nuclear agreement and beefing up the US military – are also positions where Hill Republicans and a President Trump could find agreement. Vice President-elect Mike Pence is an ally of House Republicans and could help smooth out any differences.

And Speaker Ryan, who has his own set of priorities with his GOP “Better Way” agenda, may well be able to make headway on those, says John Pitney, a congressional expert at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

“Trump is not exactly a demon for detail,” says Professor Pitney. “Given that Trump doesn’t care much for policy, [Ryan] might have a lot of room to maneuver.” 

Sand in the gears

But all kinds of political differences within and between the parties could throw sand in the gears of one-party government.

Senate Democrats may have lost their majority but they still have the ability to block bills, given the 60-vote threshold that’s become the practice for major legislation to pass the Senate.

Finally, Republicans have the opportunity to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but agreeing on a replacement is another matter entirely.

Spending, perhaps more than any other factor, could be the great divider among Republicans.

In his acceptance speech, Trump talked up a great infrastructure boost – fixing America’s “highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals.” Infrastructure has both Republican and Democratic support, but that’s quite a list and presumably, quite a price tag.

Same for building a wall.

Trump will likely try to get that going early on, given how central it was to his campaign. But the cost and effectiveness issues will, at a minimum, make it next to impossible to do, says Pitney. And Trump’s desire to protect Social Security and Medicare from cuts is not likely to sit well with conservatives worried about debt, especially those in the House’s hard-line Freedom Caucus.

“They are the guys who will be working to enact the better parts of Trump’s agenda – and fighting the worst parts,” says Jason Pye, spokesman for FreedomWorks, an advocacy group that supports the Freedom Caucus tea partyers. “They choose principle over party,” he says. They may like Trump’s tax cuts and regulation rollbacks, but they will hold the line on spending, he said, also in advance of the election.

Unpredictability factor

All of this, however, is still looking at Trump’s relations with Republicans on the Hill through a largely conventional lens – where they agree, where they don’t. Observers point out, however, that Trump’s unpredictability perhaps upends even this kind of analysis.

“The rule book has been thrown out as far as campaigning goes, and there’s no reason to believe that the rule book on the legislative process, or relations between Congress and the White House can be any way governed by previous relationships,” says Ross Baker, a longtime observer of the Senate at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ.

That’s exactly what voters who backed Trump are hoping for.

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