I Republicans fear US policy deadlock
Russia controversy strains ties between the administration and senior party leaders
Republicans fear that their policies will be derailed as the Russia turmoil engulfing Donald Trump forces them to adjust to a president with diminishing political capital.—
Republicans are deeply worried their policy agenda will be derailed as the Russia turmoil engulfing Donald Trump forces them to adjust to a president with diminishing political capital.
A senior figure close to the administration described parallel universes yesterday, with Mr Trump complaining he was the victim of a “witch hunt” in one universe, while Republicans were seeking to advance tax reform, Nafta renegotiation and a presidential trip to Saudi Arabia in another.
Despite lawmaker and administration efforts to create an impression of business as usual, concern was growing behind the scenes that rolling presidential crises were jeopardising the chances of substantive policy victories.
The controversy is straining ties between the administration and Republican leaders. Officials on Capitol Hill warn of two dangers: either a president who is too distracted to broker compromises, or one who has become so toxic lawmakers will not follow his wishes.
Republican staffers pointed to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s remarks as the best encapsulation of sentiment in their party. “I think we could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things,” he said this week. “I think it would be helpful if the president spent more time on things we’re trying to accomplish and less time on other things.”
Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic lawmaker who witnessed the presidential scandals of the Nixon and Clinton years from Congress, said: “These events seem to kind of overwhelm everybody, everything in Washington, and stop the progress. The frustration level is rising, as the comments of [Republican] leaders suggest.” He added. “These things also produce conflicts within. In other words, the White House tends to blame Congress for problems and vice versa. And those things get in the way of policy getting enacted.”
One Republican staffer said “working with the administration is not going to look good to a lot of folks”, a serious problem given the need for co-operation between the White House and Con- gress to pass ambitious legislation. That meant full-blown tax reform was now even less likely to happen before the 2018 midterm elections, the staffer said, a realisation that contributed to sharp midweek drops in US share prices, which were not reversed yesterday.
A long-time Republican operative said: “I’m not sure how much deference [Mr Trump’s] ‘leadership’ is going to get on anything that is radically different from what GOPers are inclined to sup- port on their own. Not many members are ready to follow him into battle given their growing conviction that his judgment is horrific.”
But Paul Ryan, House Speaker, told reporters: “People in the country need to know that we’re busy at work trying to solve their problems . . . It’s very important that people know we can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
The ways and means committee yesterday held a hearing to re-energise its efforts to write a tax bill. Kevin Brady, chairman, said the previous evening: “There will be a time when the president himself, and the vice-president, will have to be deeply engaged in all of this.”
The Trump administration sent notification to Congress it would begin renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement. Steven Mnuchin, Treasury secretary, told lawmakers his department was pressing on with tax and regulatory reform, and preparations were accelerating for Mr Trump’s first foreign trip, including a stop with US company leaders in Riyadh.
Stephen Myrow, a former George W Bush administration official now at Beacon Policy Advisors, said the White House turmoil in some ways “makes their lives easier” on Capitol Hill.
“Congress has been more serious in thinking through healthcare and tax reform than the White House and it gets the White House out of their hair.”
But a Republican staffer cautioned that the need for the Senate to confirm a new director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation exacerbated another problem: the absence of Senate-confirmed appointees in crucial departments, including the Treasury.
As difficult policy decisions loom, Mr Hamilton said the dilemma for lawmakers was how close they could afford to get to Mr Trump. “They need the White House. He’s got to sign the bill. They can’t do it without him,” he said. “At the same time his poll figures are plummeting. And believe you me that’s what the politician looks at, so his clout within the Republican party is declining. Does he become so toxic that they simply can’t be associated with him?” Additional reporting by Shawn Donnan
‘[Trump’s] party clout is declining. Does he become so toxic they simply can’t be associated with him?’