GOP takes break from pres­i­dent

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Lisa Mas­caro, Brian Ben­nett and Noah Bier­man

WASH­ING­TON — They’re go­ing away mad.

As Pres­i­dent Trump and the Repub­li­cans who con­trol Congress leave Wash­ing­ton for their sep­a­rate Au­gust breaks, theirs is a mar­riage on the rocks, an es­trange­ment that bodes ill for the party’s am­bi­tious agenda go­ing for­ward.

Law­mak­ers and the pres­i­dent blame each other for the fail­ure over six months to make progress on prom­ises made to con­ser­va­tive vot­ers in one elec­tion af­ter the other, no­tably the vow to re­peal and re­place the Af­ford­able Care Act, widely known as Oba­macare.

Look­ing ahead, it is in­creas­ingly ap­par­ent that GOP law­mak­ers doubt whether Trump can lead on over­haul­ing the tax code or en­act­ing an in­fra­struc­ture

plan, two other pri­or­i­ties atop the pres­i­dent’s agenda.

While Trump reg­u­larly slaps Congress on Twitter and at par­ti­san ral­lies as re­cently as Thurs­day, only a hand­ful of Repub­li­cans on Capi­tol Hill con­front him openly, given his con­tin­ued pop­u­lar­ity among con­ser­va­tive vot­ers. But their frus­tra­tion is pal­pa­ble that in this first year — when a new pres­i­dent usu­ally ex­erts max­i­mum lever­age — they have lit­tle to show for the fact that Repub­li­cans con­trol the White House and Congress for the first time in more than a decade.

Trump of­ten cites as his top achieve­ment the seat­ing of Neil M. Gor­such on the Supreme Court, en­sur­ing a con­ser­va­tive ma­jor­ity there. Yet as con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans see it, that suc­cess was largely en­gi­neered by Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch Mc­Connell (R-Ky.).

The pres­i­dent goaded the Se­nate into de­lay­ing its sum­mer re­cess by two weeks, mainly to pass a health­care al­ter­na­tive to Oba­macare. Af­ter ini­tially agree­ing, Mc­Connell de­cided to call it quits Thurs­day and sent his col­leagues home, the health­care bill all but given up for dead. Trump will de­part Friday for more than two weeks at his New Jersey golf club.

Per­haps em­bold­ened by Trump’s steadily slump­ing poll num­bers, law­mak­ers are show­ing an in­creas­ing ten­dency to go their own way, even as he taunts them and threat­ens their jobs. They will work with Trump when it suits their in­ter­est, Repub­li­cans say, but will not be cor­ralled by him.

“I wouldn’t say ig­nore the White House, but cer­tainly not be dis­tracted by it,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the third-rank­ing Se­nate Repub­li­can, in de­scrib­ing the emerg­ing ap­proach.

Thune com­pared the re­la­tion­ship to bick­er­ing rel­a­tives.

“It’s like any fam­ily — you have your days where you don’t get along as well and you might say things you later re­gret. In the long term it’s ad­van­ta­geous for us to work to­gether,” he said.

What is strik­ing at this early point in the Trump pres­i­dency is that, rather than speak­ing of him as their leader, many law­mak­ers view Trump in a strictly util­i­tar­ian way — as Thune put it, “some­body in the White House who will sign leg­is­la­tion into law.”

Some Repub­li­cans, pro­tec­tive of Congress’ pre­rog­a­tives, say they wel­come the new dy­namic.

“Hon­estly, I en­joy the fact that Congress, the Se­nate in par­tic­u­lar, is chart­ing a course, de­vel­op­ing leg­is­la­tion and — let’s face it — lead­ing on all of th­ese is­sues,” said Sen. Bob Corker of Ten­nessee, chair­man of the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee.

The lat­est ex­am­ple: Trump’s big an­nounce­ment Wed­nes­day of a plan to cur­tail le­gal im­mi­gra­tion. That was a sig­na­ture piece of his cam­paign plat­form, yet Trump held a White House event to em­brace two Repub­li­can sen­a­tors’ leg­is­la­tion, not to unveil a plan of his own. The White House billed it as a trans­for­ma­tional pol­icy, but that boast re­ceived lit­tle more than eye rolls on Capi­tol Hill.

The bill’s prospects are dim there, re­gard­less of the fact that Trump’s se­nior pol­icy ad­vi­sor was so au­da­cious on his boss’ be­half as to is­sue po­lit­i­cal threats against mem­bers of Congress from the White House press lectern.

“Ul­ti­mately, mem­bers of Congress will have a choice to make,” Stephen Miller told White House re­porters Wed­nes­day. “They can ei­ther vote with the in­ter­ests of U.S. cit­i­zens and U.S. work­ers, or they can vote against their in­ter­ests, and what­ever hap­pens as a re­sult of that I think would be some­what pre­dictable.”

The fraught re­la­tions in the Repub­li­can fam­ily, build­ing for months, burst into pub­lic view af­ter the pun­ish­ing de­feat on health­care last week. That was fol­lowed this week by a re­luc­tant Trump’s sig­na­ture on a sanc­tions bill pe­nal­iz­ing Rus­sia that ties his hands in a ma­jor area of for­eign pol­icy. Had he not signed it, Congress would eas­ily have over­rid­den his veto, Repub­li­cans said.

Many Repub­li­can law­mak­ers, in fact, cited Rus­sian sanc­tions as a top ac­com­plish­ment.

Trump called Repub­li­can sen­a­tors “fools” in a tweet last week­end, crit­i­ciz­ing them for their in­abil­ity to pass leg­is­la­tion — a charge his press sec­re­tary re­peat­edly echoed from the White House brief­ing room. By Thurs­day morn­ing, a day af­ter he signed the Rus­sia sanc­tions bill, Trump was again stew­ing.

“Our re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia is at an all-time & very dan­ger­ous low,” he tweeted. “You can thank Congress, the same peo­ple that can’t even give us HCare!”

Sen. John McCain, the Ari­zona Repub­li­can who helped sink the Oba­macare re­peal ef­fort, fired back with his own tweet: “You can thank Putin for at­tack­ing our democ­racy, in­vad­ing neigh­bors & threat­en­ing our al­lies.”

McCain fol­lowed up with a news re­lease in which he force­fully crit­i­cized Trump for a lack of “pol­icy and strate­gic guid­ance” in the war in Afghanistan.

Sen. Mike Rounds, a for­mer Repub­li­can gov­er­nor of South Dakota, said the first half of the year showed Congress the im­por­tance of “tak­ing back some of its re­spon­si­bil­i­ties” that it had lost.

Rounds called the bi­par­ti­san sanc­tions bill a “good ex­am­ple of Congress say­ing, ‘We have a say in this also.’ That, I think, might be more of a har­bin­ger of things to come than some peo­ple might think.”

But Congress’ ac­tion is still a big risk with vot­ers, es­pe­cially with Repub­li­cans who be­lieved that Trump and their party’s law­mak­ers would be able to move quickly on a con­ser­va­tive wish list that piled up dur­ing the Obama years.

“I’m not sure that it’s go­ing to be a pleas­ant re­cess,” said Chip Felkel, a long­time Repub­li­can con­sul­tant in South Carolina. “What we said all along was when they get the House and the Se­nate, we’ll make th­ese changes. And so far we haven’t re­ally seen a whole lot, other than not get­ting stuff done.”

Felkel says he be­lieves law­mak­ers will get the bulk of the blame from the party’s core sup­port­ers. Even though Trump’s pop­u­lar­ity is below 40% with the gen­eral pub­lic, it’s much higher in many Repub­li­cans’ con­gres­sional dis­tricts and in states where the party dom­i­nates.

“They aren’t push­ing back yet be­cause they’re try­ing to fig­ure out how he’s be­ing per­ceived in their district,” Felkel said.

That’s why few law­mak­ers have gone as far as Sen. Jeff Flake, an Ari­zona Repub­li­can, who this week re­leased a book blam­ing his party for its fail­ure to chal­lenge Trump more force­fully, and char­ac­ter­iz­ing that in­ac­tion as a dan­ger to the re­pub­lic.

Char­lie Gerow, a Penn­syl­va­nia-based Repub­li­can strate­gist, says sup­port for Trump among Repub­li­cans in his state de­pends on the district. Law­mak­ers from the state’s more ur­ban south­east, where Trump’s sup­port­ers are fewer and less com­mit­ted, are keep­ing far more dis­tance from Trump than those from other parts of the state, es­pe­cially to the west, where law­mak­ers still see great ad­van­tage to con­nect­ing them­selves with the pres­i­dent.

“It is a phe­nom­e­non, I think, of how strong Trump’s base has re­mained in their loy­alty,” Gerow said. “They are pas­sion­ate, and any word of crit­i­cism, even from friends of the ad­min­is­tra­tion, is met with vit­riol.”

Re­cent polling shows Trump’s stand­ing with the broader Amer­i­can pub­lic, never par­tic­u­larly ro­bust, has eroded, with signs of weak­ness ap­pear­ing among Repub­li­can vot­ers.

Fewer than 4 in 10 Amer­i­cans now ap­prove of Trump’s per­for­mance in of­fice, half a dozen re­cent sur­veys in­di­cate, while nearly 6 in 10 have a neg­a­tive opin­ion.

More trou­bling for the White House than the size of the drop is which vot­ers have be­gun sour­ing on Trump.

Polls show that the share of vot­ers who say they strongly ap­prove of Trump’s per­for­mance has con­tin­ued to de­cline. An in­creas­ing num­ber of Repub­li­can vot­ers have shifted from offering him strong approval to offering a more tepid level of sup­port.

In polls by Sur­vey­Mon­key, which uses very large sam­ples of re­spon­dents that al­low for anal­y­sis of sub­groups, mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans have no­tice­ably started to leave the fold. In Fe­bru­ary, about 80% of them said they sup­ported Trump; by this last week, that sup­port had fallen to 67%.

At the same time, the share of peo­ple who say that Trump “can get things done” has dropped by about 10 points since early March; only 28% of peo­ple in the most re­cent Sur­vey­Mon­key poll agreed with that state­ment. Since that fig­ure is smaller than Trump’s over­all job approval, it in­di­cates that even some of the pres­i­dent’s sup­port­ers have be­gun to doubt his ef­fec­tive­ness.

J. Scott Ap­ple­white As­so­ci­ated Press

“I EN­JOY the fact that Congress, the Se­nate in par­tic­u­lar, is chart­ing a course, de­vel­op­ing leg­is­la­tion and ... lead­ing on all of th­ese is­sues,” says Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chair­man of the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee.

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