WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and his Republican Party should be celebrating. The GOP just rolled out a big tax cut bill, as the party controls the White House, Senate and House. But instead of breaking out party hats and noisemakers, party leaders are looking down at a feast of anxiety and recrimination.
In a town where pundits frequently declare various weeks to be the worst in Trump’s presidency, this last week could represent a nadir for the GOP, even if it lacks the drama of previous bad weeks.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had to pull a vote for the Senate’s second stab at paving over Obamacare.
Alabama Republicans weren’t swayed by Trump’s pre-election rally in Huntsville for Sen. Luther Strange and rejected Strange in favor of Roy Moore, the conservative judge.
After basking in glory for his handling of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Trump has had to deal with critics who think he should have done a better job in Puerto Rico.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s fondness for charter flights made the Trump Cabinet appear too high-flying.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., announced he would not seek re-election.
A key figure in the power shift in the GOP is former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who was fired in August. Bannon endorsed Moore, and at a victory celebration, Bannon crowed that Moore’s win signaled the start of “a revolution.”
Bannon also said that a vote for Moore was a vote for Trump, but that does not mean Moore’s primary victory is good for Trump. As Trump warned voters, Democrat Doug Jones stands a better chance of defeating Moore than Strange.
Also, Moore said that he would not have voted for the GOP health care bill that died last week — yes, the bill that could not garner 50 of the Senate’s 52 Republican votes. Whichever candidate wins in the December special election, he will be less likely to support Trump.
It’s hard to see the path wherein Trump gets anything big through this Congress. “I think the gridlock in Washington creates more gridlock,” observed Alice Stewart, a GOP strategist and CNN contributor.
And it’s not clear that Trump realizes how far the GOP is from the health care finish line. At a press scrum Wednesday, Trump told reporters that the GOP had the votes to pass the Graham/Cassidy bill that never came to a vote — but a key GOP senator was in the hospital. He was just plain wrong. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., pointed out that he was not in the hospital — and he was not one of the three senators who openly split with Senate leadership to deprive the bill of 50 votes.
Stewart supported the bill, and she said that the closer it came to a vote, the clearer it became that “we’re a lot more shy of votes than two or three.”
The problem with the health bill, as Stewart sees it is math: “Trump can’t do it alone with Democrats, and Republicans can’t do it themselves.”
“They have 52 seats, but they do not have a working majority,” noted Bill Whalen, research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.
As he reviewed the GOP’s bad-news week, Whalen saw a problem that is beyond Trump’s control: “It’s the curse of the Republican party. It’s an executive party” — witness the number of modern GOP presidents — “but it’s not a good legislative party.” Republicans lack the discipline needed to pass big bills.
Even if Republicans increase their numbers in the Senate, new GOP lawmakers are more likely to be anti-establishment and less likely to work well with others. Whalen thinks it is possible that the only way Trump can pass legislation is to walk away from big comprehensive bills and instead try to pass smaller measures.
“Maybe it’s just not possible to do comprehensive reform in Congress anymore,” Whalen mused. Instead of a big immigration bill, the GOP has a better shot at passing a bill on Dreamers — undocumented immigrants brought into the United States as children — and another bill that would require employers to verify workers’ legal status.
The other problem, Stewart and Whalen agree, is that to rack up a big legislative victory, Trump has to contend with too many GOP upstarts who share his my-way-or-the-highway approach.
“In Alabama,” Whalen saw “Donald Trump running against himself. Trumpism defeated Donald Trump.”
“I think the irony with the Alabama race is that Trump ran as the anti-establishment candidate, as the outsider,” Stewart observed, “and here we have a situation where he supported the establishment candidate and that candidate lost and Trump is on the losing side of this race.”
The other irony is, the more Republicans in Congress act like Trump, the more he will need Democrats if he wants to pass legislation.