As White House spokespeople blithely insist that everything is fine between the Republican president and Republican leaders of the House and Senate, the relationship continues to deteriorate—with vague sniping in the press escalating into screaming private phone calls and public call-outs at rallies and on Twitter.
Always one who thrives on attacking a real or invented enemy, President Donald Trump, whose party controls every level of power in Washington, has targeted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for ridicule, blaming him for just how little Republicans have been able to accomplish in 2017.
The president has also gone after individual lawmakers in his own party, threatening to primary some of the Senate’s most vulnerable GOP members and publicly and privately berating others.
The attacks could not come at a worse time.
Because Congress ate up so much of the year with a failed push to repeal the Affordable Care Act, they have an extremely narrow time frame left to pass a budget, raise the debt ceiling, reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Flood Insurance Program and appropriate funding to stabilize Obamacare’s marketplaces. This would be a challenge even with full support from the White House, but it becomes nearly impossible with a president whose spasms of rage, loose grasp of policy, and itchy Twitter finger threaten to derail the delicate deal-making process.
Here comes the September from hell.
The House and Senate return from recess Sept. 5, the day after Labor Day, and will only be in session for 12 days in September. During that time, they must negotiate and pass a slew of bills to keep the government running and avoid defaulting on the national debt.
Besides raising the debt ceiling and approving either a short- or long-term budget by the end of September, Congress must also reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the National Flood Insurance Program before their funding expires. The latter has taken on new urgency in light of the devastating flooding from Hurricane Harvey that continues to batter Texas and the Gulf Coast.
Republican leaders on the Hill have already conceded that, given the tight deadline, their promises of a return to “regular order” budget votes will have to wait, and the best they can hope for is a short-term continuing resolution to stave off a government shutdown for a few more months.
Trump lobbed a grenade into this tense process by calling publicly for a government shutdown if Congress is unwilling to spend billions on the construction of a wall along the border with Mexico—a cost he repeatedly promised would not fall on U.S. taxpayers.
Republican leaders immediately poured cold water on the president’s threats, with House Speaker Paul Ryan offering assurances that a shutdown was not “necessary” or in anyone’s interest. Many rank-and-file Republicans have agreed, showing no eagerness to back the president’s hard line on border funding, while Democrats remain staunchly opposed and emboldened to make their own demands.
In addition to the looming shutdown showdown, Trump and McConnell are fighting one another in proxy wars in Republican primaries in Alabama and Arizona—with McConnell mobilizing to defend incumbents Jeff Flake and Luther Strange against attacks from Trump and Trump-allied PACs.
As lawmakers scramble over the coming weeks to craft a grand bargain that both sides of the aisle can live with, the escalation of this Republican civil war could prove disastrous.
During the last round of budget negotiations in the spring, Trump’s bluster about border wall funding and other issues fizzled quickly, and he ended up signing a bill that met essentially none of his demands.
Since then, Republicans have only shown themselves more willing to ignore and defy him—on everything from Russia sanctions to taking their traditional August recess to protecting the special counsel’s investigation of Trump.
Lawmakers have similarly waved away the president’s repeated demand that the Senate kill the legislative filibuster and move to a simple majority vote on all bills—a move McConnell and most Republicans firmly oppose, knowing it could backfire if and when Democrats take back the upper chamber.
The president’s ham-handed negotiating tactics during the multi-month health care fight will likely make lawmakers even less willing to risk their own necks to advance his agenda. Holding an over-the-top Rose Garden celebration when the House passed the deeply unpopular Obamacare repeal bill, only to call that bill “mean” weeks later, gave members of Congress whiplash.
And whether he was demanding swing vote Sen. Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV) promise to vote for a bill she’d never seen before riding on Air Force One, or dispatching a cabinet member to threaten Alaska’s Republican senators with cuts to their state’s funding, or generally treating lawmakers like his underlings instead of a co-equal branch of government, Trump proved himself unable to use carrots or sticks to get any bill across the finish line.
Now, still bruised from the health care debacle, lawmakers say they will turn their attention to passing tax cuts—a goal they originally pledged to meet by August and now say, dubiously, that they will accomplish by the end of the year. The president will reportedly not contribute any policy proposals of his own.
With a marked uptick in the number of Republicans willing to buck the president’s priorities, and even openly question his fitness for office, Trump may lash out and potentially veto whatever legislation Capitol Hill manages to produce. The famed deal-maker appears far more interested in making sure Congress shoulders the blame for any future failures than avoiding those failures altogether.