Republicans have the House, the Senate and the White House. It is the magic political trifecta the party has been waiting for – with one small hitch.
Everyone is holding their breath to see what version of President-elect Trump is sworn in. Is it the “build the wall,” “drain the swamp,” bad trade deal Trump many members made conscious decisions to run away from in their own elections? Or is a more pragmatic and malleable commander-in-chief about to emerge?
Republicans are about to find out.
Trump ran on a populist message about border security and a rigged system, not a strictly conservative one that promoted the virtues of free trade and preached the gospel of social conservatism. But he won, and Republicans know they cannot pretend Trump’s victory didn’t help them preserve their own Senate majority.
Republican senators are trying their darndest to remain optimistic that Trump’s vision for the Republican Party’s future and their own are close enough. But you can’t obscure it, if the Trump that lands in the White House is anything like the one on the campaign trail, there are going to be major differences.
Trump has said he wants to start with a big infrastructure bill, but even that could surface GOP tensions. Domestic spending costs money and in the past Republicans have demanded big bills like that needed to be off set to win their approval.
“I think Donald Trump is clearly willing to open the floodgates, he wants to do a transportation bill first. Big spending bill so clearly he is willing to spend money on domestic priorities Republicans have been unwilling to do for eight years,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO). “I don’t know if he’s put a spell on them or they’ve all changed their mind.”
On everything from the U.S posture toward Russia to immigration to trade, Republicans are trying to lay down the gauntlet and send a signal to Trump on what is strict, Republican orthodoxy versus what they can be flexible on.
Tuesday evening, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) sat with reporters in the press gallery to lay out his willingness to work with Trump, while remaining clear that he wasn’t going to unilaterally embrace Trump’s vision on immigration nor his posture toward Russia.
“[Trump] wants to reset with Russia. Maybe he can do it, but here’s my view about Russia: They’re a bad actor in the world and they need to be reined in,” Graham said. “I respect the fact that he won, but Congress does have a say and a role in all this.”
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, offered a similar declaration about Russia in a statement earlier this week.
“With the U.S. presidential transition underway, Vladimir Putin has said in recent days that he wants to improve relations with the United States. We should place as much faith in such statements as any other made by a former KGB agent who has plunged his country into tyranny, murdered his political opponents, invaded his neighbors, threatened America’s allies, and attempted to undermine America’s elections,” McCain said in a statement.
On the campaign trail, it may have been uncomfortable, but it was easy enough for Republicans to distance themselves from Trump. He was their nominee, but they had their own races to run. When Trump is president and a president who helped get many down-ballot candidates elected to boot, Republicans may find it harder to maintain their own independence.
Trade is another corner where Republicans and their new president may share starkly different positions.
“If anybody can tell me what President-elect Trump is gonna do next you let me know what it is and we’ll see if it’s true. I don’t know what he’s gonna do next,” said Sen. Tm Scott (R-SC) when asked about the future of the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade bill.
Republicans have tended to be a party of free trade, but Trump’s victory in rust-belt states where factory layoffs and a shifting economy persist may make it difficult for Trump to backtrack even as some hold their breath that Trump will change his mind.
“He articulated over the course of the campaign a different position than some of us up here, but we’ll try to figure out a way to work through that,” said Sen. John Thune (R-SD). “I just think trade’s important to the economy and I hope he does, too.”
Even Trump’s more institutional reforms have fallen on deaf ears in the Senate. Trump reiterated in a 60 Minutes interview Sunday that he would like to see lawmakers subject to term limits, something the Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) – a man who typically keeps his legislative maneuvering close to his vest– has forcefully said he’s not going to bring up for a vote.
“I would say we have term limits now,” McConnell said last week in a press conference right after the election. “They’re called elections. And it will not be on the agenda in the Senate.”
After a shocking and unexpected presidential election result, many Republicans are simply unsure what Trump’s administration might do first anyway.
“It’s just too early to speculate what the president’s agenda is going to be,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME).
Democrats are giddy at that prospect.
“It’s gonna be really interesting to watch, I’m gonna grab me a Diet Coke and try to hold the butter on the popcorn,” said McCaskill. “I cannot imagine how they reconcile this. I’ve listened to the speeches from the Republicans here for eight years and the positions they’ve taken, and they are so different than what Donald Trump is saying so it will be interesting to see, but clearly he got a lot of votes so it’s going to be really interesting to see how this plays out.”