Nobody puts the President in the corner.
That is the message Donald Trump has sent to Senate Republicans non-stop since a vote to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act failed in the early hours of Friday morning.
In a barrage of tweets over the weekend, Trump said Senate Republicans “look like fools,” called on them to abolish the legislative filibuster, and laid the blame for the failure of Obamacare repeal legislation he did nothing to help along squarely at their feet. He even threatened to strip some health care benefits away from lawmakers if they failed to act.
But six months into the administration, Senate Republicans are equally fed up with the impulsive President and have started to signal pushback on issues from Russia to Cabinet staffing decisions. With both the White House and GOP-controlled Congress desperate to secure their first major legislative win, escalating this conflict could be devastating for both.
“I think they’ve got to get a tax bill through now,” Tom Davis, a former congressman from Virginia and former chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told TPM. “Republicans have got to show that they’re capable of governing.”
“My experience has been threatening members has never been a good way to get votes,” he added. “I was a deputy whip, I’ve seen this stuff, and it generally just does not work. You get a lot more with sugar and honey than you get with vinegar.”
“The strategy employed is naive and intrinsically counterproductive,” Jim Leach, who served as a Republican congressman from Iowa for 30 years, told TPM. “Threats to members of Congress are not the type of things that are easy to accede to and they’re not the type of things that are easily forgotten.”
“You might ask John McCain about that,” Leach added with a chuckle, referring to the Arizona senator’s deciding “no” vote on Obamacare repeal.
An unnamed ally of House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and recently ousted White House chief of staff Reince Priebus told CNBC’s John Harwood that this was just the beginning of a “war w/GOP Congress.” Trump’s allies seemed to affirm that, with Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi telling the New York Times that “Congress should beware, our president will not give up on doing what’s right for the American people.”
Former Rep. David Jolly (R-FL) cautioned on Twitter that such a war “might appease [Trump] & his base, but destroying GOP Congress will only lead to Dem control in 18.”
Last week appeared to mark something of a turning point in Congress-White House relations. Trump’s sustained attacks on Attorney General Jeff Sessions prompted a wellspring of outrage from his former Capitol Hill colleagues, including close Trump administration allies. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) warned that there would be “holy hell to pay” if Trump removed him. The President’s impromptu decision, announced on Twitter, to ban transgender people from military service was met with a similar wave of opposition from usually friendly quarters.
Archconservative Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) has said that Trump’s tweeted policy statements and attacks on his own Cabinet threaten “his presidency.”
Both Senate and House Republicans also offered a rebuke to Trump’s efforts to strengthen his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin by passing a massive sanctions package against Russia with veto-proof majorities.
All of this, combined with a steady stream of palace intrigue stories detailing the discord in the West Wing, puts Trump in a weak negotiating position as he tries to convince congressional Republicans to take up healthcare repeal yet again or make progress on tax reform.
Some Republicans hope that the relocation of retired Gen. John Kelly from the Department of Homeland Security to the White House chief-of-staff position will help impose some order and facilitate legislative discussions with Congress. But time is running out.
“There’s no time in a presidential administration in which the energy level is higher and typically there’s no greater time that the public is more receptive to a president’s lead than the beginning,” Russell Riley, an expert on the U.S. presidency at the University of Virginia’s non-partisan Miller Center, had told TPM in the lead-up to Trump’s 100th day in office.
As Jolly warned, a failure to act on the promises GOP senators campaigned on during eight years of Democratic control could have devastating consequences in the 2018 midterms. Cutting lawmakers down at every pass may alleviate the President’s frustration with the progress of his agenda, but it won’t help the party electorally.
“As long as they’re having these back and forths, that’s not helping Republicans accomplish and get something done,” said Chris Herrod, a Republican former member of the Utah House of Representatives who is running to fill the vacancy left by former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT).
“I truly do believe there will be a big backlash if they’re not able to come through on a number of things, be it tax reform or health care reform,” Herrod continued. “If nothing gets done, waiting out the clock doesn’t bode well for Republicans.”