From its inception in January, unified GOP control of Washington has been anything but unified.
But over the last few months, as back-biting and finger-pointing between the executive and legislative branches has escalated, Republicans in Congress have taken several concrete steps to wrest power away from the president and protect both domestic and foreign policy from Donald Trump’s meddling.
“You’re seeing a whole series of public statements and actions by an increasingly wider range of Republican senators to push back on this White House,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) told reporters last week. “This is part of a broader theme about more and more questions being raised about the path forward about the separation of powers.”
From health care to national security to the federal budget, here are the ways Congress is clawing back power from the executive branch, and shoring up the guardrails to contain Trump.
For several years and under at least three administrations, Congress has schemed to block the president from making recess appointments of controversial cabinet picks by not taking a formal recess. A Democratic-controlled Congress did this to President George W. Bush, and a Republican Congress did this to President Barack Obama—resulting in a lawsuit that eventually reached the Supreme Court over the constitutionality of the tactic. Last week, however, brought the unusual spectacle of a Republican Congress moving to thwart a Republican president, with the Senate unanimously voting to hold pro forma sessions through the rest of August.
Amid fears that Trump may attempt to fire special counsel Bob Mueller, whose investigation into the Trump campaign and White House for potential collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice has begun in earnest, Senate Republicans have teamed up with Democrats to introduce two bills to shield Mueller and his probe.
One bill, authored by Coons and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), would direct a panel of federal judges to review Mueller’s firing and potentially reinstate him within two weeks if they find Trump had no good cause for his ouster. Another bill, introduced by Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), would have the judges weigh in and potentially block the firing before it occurs.
“Right now, the fact that there can be a special counsel is statutory, but the procedures for their appointment and removal are just regulations,” explained Coons. “This is important, because some have argued the president could simply waive or appeal those regulations as a matter of executive power. So we’re taking what is regulatory and making it statutory. It would take exactly the current standards that are in regulation and make them statues, which is a higher level of protection.”
Tillis, usually an ally of Trump’s who toes the party line, does not share Trump’s view that the investigation is a meritless “witch hunt.”
A back-end judicial review process to prevent unmerited removals of special counsels not only helps to ensure their investigatory independence, but also reaffirms our nation’s system of checks and balances,” he said.
In late July, over the objections of President Trump, Congress passed a bill imposing sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea by a veto-proof margin, with the vast majority of Republicans bucking the president’s will.
The legislation takes away the president’s power to unilaterally lift or ease sanctions against Moscow. After the administration’s attempts to weaken the bill were unsuccessful, he issued a bizarre signing statement calling the legislation “seriously flawed.” When Trump then proceeded to lash out at Capitol Hill Republicans, blaming them for the deterioration of the U.S. relationship with Russia, even staunch allies of the president returned fire, saying Trump should be criticizing Russia instead of his own political party.
After repeated threats from the White House to cut off billions in payments to insurance companies that subsidizes health insurance for the sickest Americans, Republicans in Congress are moving to Trump-proof the vulnerable individual health insurance market.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) is crafting a bill that would appropriate the cost sharing reduction (CSR) payments Trump is currently making on a month-by-month basis for a full year, giving the insurance industry a measure of stability as they decide their 2018 rates and the counties where they will offer plans. Republicans and Democrats in the House are also working on legislation that would appropriate and guarantee the CSR funds.
Ironically, House Republicans who just a few years ago sued the Obama administration for making the payments—a lawsuit still making its way through the courts today—are scrambling to prevent the Trump administration from cutting them off, knowing the fallout could be the loss of affordable insurance for millions of people.
This spring, Trump’s first budget proposal landed with a thud on Capitol Hill, with Republicans openly rebuking and ultimately ignoring the calls for gutting the State Department, medical research, environmental cleanup, and nearly every domestic program that helps low-income people. Also rejected: Trump’s demand for billions in funding for a new wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“When President Trump presented his budget, it had dramatic, broad, deep cuts across virtually every area of domestic programming, and that eliminated entire programs,” Coons told reporters. “But on every subcommittee that so far has had a markup, virtually all of those cuts have been rejected on a bipartisan basis.”
When it came time for Congress to pass a temporary budget, they largely ignored the president’s wishes, joining with Democrats to maintain and in several areas increase the funding for programs Trump aimed to cut.
Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.