Why GOP Congress will soldier on with Trump

The president's remarks about Charlottesville have prompted a slew of public rebukes from GOP lawmakers. But tough issues like tax reform and the debt ceiling will need presidential support.

Erik Schelzig/AP
Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee speaks to the Sevier County Chamber of Commerce in Sevierville, Tenn., on Aug. 16. Senator Corker called a man driving into a crowd in Charlottesville, Va., "an act of terror," but declined to criticize President Trump's comments about the violent weekend clash in which an anti-racist protester was killed. The following day, however, he said Mr. Trump had yet to demonstrate the "stability" and "competence" to be a successful president.

It is perhaps the most serious, direct criticism of President Trump by one of his fellow Republicans in Congress since his remarks about last weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, Va.

On Thursday, Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters in his home state of Tennessee that Mr. Trump has yet to demonstrate the “stability” or “competence” to be a successful president – which the world needs, he said. Nor has the president recently shown that he “understands the character of this nation.”

Without these things, the senator continued, the country will be “in great peril.”

That kind of warning, along with a slew of targeted and implied rebukes of Trump from Republican lawmakers, again raises the question of whether relations between the president and his party in Congress have reached a breaking point.

Again, the answer is no, because of the two sides’ mutual interest in their agenda. But this latest blow-up widens the internal party divisions ahead of a full fall that includes the president’s marquee item, tax reform. And it puts in doubt his ability to sell this and other issues to the Congress and the nation, observers say.

“Trump’s ability to persuade members to do something is almost zero right now,” says Matt Mackowiak, a GOP consultant in Texas and a former senior Senate aide. “He’s wasting his political capital on things that are not central to his agenda. It’s a little bit like spending your allowance on candy.”

Keeping their heads down

And yet, the fact remains that the White House and his party on the Hill share a common agenda that keeps them tied to each other through political storms: the pre-election “Access Hollywood” scandal, the clash over the Russia investigations, the failure of Obamacare “repeal and replace,” and Trump’s repeated public scolding of lawmakers, including Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky.

“It doesn’t matter what the president says, it’s what he signs that’s the key to keeping the majorities in Congress,” says John Feehery, who was the spokesman for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois.

What Republicans need to do is “keep their heads down” and get their work done so they have something to show voters in the midterm elections of 2018, says Mr. Feehery. When they return from their August recess after Labor Day, they need to deal with the national debt ceiling, the budget, and – Republicans hope – pass a tax reform bill by the end of the year.

None of these are going to be easy.

Divisions over debt ceiling, budget

Republicans are divided over raising the debt ceiling – the equivalent of paying the nation’s credit card bill for expenses already incurred. In the past, hard-line conservatives have used the debt ceiling to exact savings in spending, taking the nation to the brink of default. The White House wants a “clean” raising of the debt limit with no conditions and no drama.

The budget is another tough one. It includes political landmines like the president’s southern border wall and military spending increases for which Democrats will want higher domestic spending in return. Meanwhile, the details of tax reform, which Republicans still plan to pass on their own, have yet to be fleshed out – and it’s the details that spark the divisions.

Helping to bridge these differences, whether they are between Republicans or between the parties, is an important job of a president. Yet some political analysts are now saying that, effectively, the president is not playing this role.

“There’s no president to lead the way,” says Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank.

Instead, he’s caught up by distractions and controversy, which are contributing to approval ratings of less than 40 percent. The president decided to remove one of those distractions, with news reports on Friday indicating that controversial advisor Steve Bannon is now out as the president's chief strategist.

“After this week, it will be well-nigh impossible for Trump to get any Democratic votes on controversial legislation” because he is so toxic to Democrats, says John Pitney, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. Democrats are are now pushing censure of the president in the House.

Needed: Presidential sales job

At the same time, a big lift like tax reform requires presidential focus and a presidential sales job. And while Trump is known for his dealmaking, an unpopular president often has a hard time selling his agenda, even if the unpopularity has nothing to do with the task at hand, explains Prof. Pitney.

“The trouble is, with something big, you need a president, and they don’t have it,” says Professor Pitney. He is reminded of President Nixon, who proposed what Pitney calls “Obamacare 1.0.” But it didn’t go anywhere, “because Nixon was already politically dead.”

These are harsh critiques, and not everybody completely buys them.

Elections, not impeachment, 'the natural breaking point'

Feehery warns “establishment Republicans” that Trump has strengthened support with his base since Charlottesville, not weakened it. He says lawmakers should not digress from their legislative agenda just because they don’t like what the president says.

Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma is admittedly concerned about “strains” with the White House that have been exacerbated by the president’s characterization of many people who marched with white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville as “very fine” people.

“This isn’t a bunch of innocent people. There’s not a moral equivalency here,” says Congressman Cole.

But like Feehery, Cole, who is close to the House GOP leadership, urges everyone to take a collective deep breath, because “we have a lot in common. We can’t be successful without each other.”

He points to the accomplishments of the past six months, which, besides the GOP goals of a Supreme Court justice and regulation rollbacks, include bipartisan passage of Veterans Affairs reform and anti-human-trafficking legislation. The trifecta of health care, tax reform, and infrastructure remain undone, he says, but therein lies the incentive.

Elections – rather than an unrealistic impeachment – are “the natural breaking point,” as Cole defines it. “My advice to the president and our guys is, if you don’t produce, you won’t be in the majority.”

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