Republicans tried, after the collapse of their long campaign to end Obamacare, to put a good face forward as they pressed on to tax reform and other issues on their ambitious legislative agenda. But they just couldn’t help themselves.
The blame game launched quickly. Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) suggested that the House had done its job, but colleagues in the Senate had failed to deliver.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), unwilling to shoulder all the blame, passed some of it off to the White House, saying President Trump was so new to politics that he had “excessive expectations” about how Washington works.
And then Trump – who had already been busy scolding Republicans in tweets – unleashed a fresh round of attacks over the last several days, stopping just short of calling for McConnell to resign.
For a political party that has a once-in-a-generation opportunity, controlling both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, this was not a good sign.
As the infighting spilled into the open in recent days, the messy airing of grievances threatened to jam the party’s complicated legislative agenda this fall.
Diminishing McConnell’s standing predictably would erode the ability of Congress to advance legislation. When leaders are weak, fewer lawmakers will follow them. It’s a problem that has repeatedly plagued the House since the Republicans took control in 2011 and could now affect the Senate as well.
Trump’s criticisms could also heighten the fear Republican lawmakers already have that he will not back them up if they take unpopular votes. Those worries became more widespread earlier this summer after Trump urged House Republicans to approve the leadership’s bill to repeal Obamacare and then openly criticized the measure as “mean.”
The sniping between Trump and congressional leaders also worsens the risk of Republican losses in next year’s midterm elections. Congress already suffers from dismal approval ratings, but convincing voters that lawmakers are ineffective could dampen Republican turnout and further harm the party’s chances of retaining control of the House.
A Gallup poll released Wednesday showed that the number of Republicans who approve of Congress’ work has plunged. At the start of the year, half of Republicans said they approved of Congress; now only about 1 in 6 say the same.
As if all that were not enough, the infighting comes at a particularly inopportune time for congressional leaders. When lawmakers return to work in September, they will have just days to act to avert a potential financial crisis and federal shutdown, needing to pass legislation to raise the government’s debt ceiling and fund federal agencies before they can begin to make progress on goals such as tax reform.
Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, said that while the founding fathers anticipated friction between Congress and the executive branch — and between the House and Senate — with each part acting as a check on the others’ ambitions, Trump has taken that to a new level.
“Trump neither knows nor cares about institutional roles or traditions,” said Pitney, a former Republican official who left the party after Trump’s election. “He seems to think he can intrude on the internal politics of Congress, and so he risks generating a lot of resentment.”
Republicans were bound to take shots at each other after the Senate last month lost, by one vote, the GOP’s best chance to begin dismantling Obamacare, something they had long promised.
One lawmaker, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, went so far as to suggest that fellow Republican Sen. John McCain’s recent brain cancer diagnosis may have affected his thinking in casting the deciding vote that defeated the healthcare bill. Johnson later insisted he was only expressing sympathy for McCain’s condition.
Trump, as he often does, escalated the sniping to a new level. The president started with a series of tweets and quickly jumped to suggestions that without better legislative outcomes, it might be time for the Senate leader to step down.
“I’m very disappointed in Mitch,” Trump told reporters Thursday at his Bedminster, N.J., resort. “They lost by one vote. For a thing like that to happen is a disgrace.”
Asked if McConnell should step aside, he said: “I'll tell you what, if he doesn't get repeal and replace done and if he doesn't get taxes done, meaning cuts and reform, and if he doesn't get a very easy one to get done, infrastructure -- if he doesn't get them done, then you can ask me that question.”
Trump appears to have accepted no blame for his inability to influence Republican lawmakers whose votes he needs, especially those in the Senate.
Instead, the president has chosen to rally his most dedicated supporters as his popularity among others drops, shifting blame to the Washington “swamp,” as embodied in Congress.
Trump’s attacks on McConnell came after Sean Hannity, the Fox TV host, targeted the Senate leader. Hannity’s show has often been a sounding board for the White House to try out messages designed to appeal to its core voters.
“If all you're going to do is whine like a 10-year-old and complain and make excuses and blame the president for your failure after eight months of him now being in office, and you have in the House and Senate -- guess what? It really is time to drain the sewer and swamp,” Hannity said.
“You know, Mitch McConnell, have you ever had in all your years in politics an enthusiastic crowd like President Trump? I doubt it. The American people voted for this president's agenda,” Hannity said. “Senator, if you can't get it done, get out of the way! Retire. Leave Washington. Go play golf. Go fishing.”
McConnell’s allies, who are many in the Senate, quickly rallied to his support, knowing that the majority leader – perhaps even more than Ryan — remains the most powerful leader in Congress.
Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the longest-serving Senate Republican, said McConnell “has been the best leader we’ve had in my time in the Senate, through very tough challenges. I fully support him."
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) tweeted that McConnell “is the single biggest reason why Neil Gorsuch is now a SCOTUS,” referring to the Senate leader’s year-long strategy of blocking then-President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court and then changing Senate rules to allow easier confirmation of Trump’s pick.
The second-ranking Republican, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, tweeted: “Passing POTUS's legislative agenda requires a team effort. No one is more qualified than Mitch McConnell to lead Senate in that effort.”
“As Benjamin Franklin said,” Cornyn added, “we can hang together or hang separately.”