GOP sway over its leader hits a low point

As Trump and Democrats get friendly, Repub­li­cans try to re­gain lever­age


Pres­i­dent Trump’s lat­est ten­dency to turn to Democrats to hash out ma­jor leg­isla­tive deals has left Repub­li­can lead­ers fac­ing a new re­al­ity as a daunt­ing fall agenda looms: They are at their low­est mo­ment of in­flu­ence this year.

De­spite their con­trol of both cham­bers and with a GOP part­ner in the White House, con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans are la­bor­ing, some­times awk­wardly, to project lever­age over ef­forts to re­write the na­tion’s tax laws and craft a bill to de­cide the fate of hun­dreds of thou­sands of young un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants.

Some are pri­vately fum­ing over the valu­able po­lit­i­cal cover Trump is giv­ing to cen­trist Demo­cratic se­na­tors who are top tar­gets in the 2018 midterms in states the pres­i­dent won. By ne­go­ti­at­ing with them and ap­pear­ing at events to­gether, the pres­i­dent is po­ten­tially eas­ing their chal­lenge of win­ning con­ser­va­tive vot­ers.

Repub­li­cans have played down Trump’s talks with Democrats, is­sued warn­ings that the ef­fort could prove fu­tile and looked for a sil­ver lin­ing — that the pres­i­dent is tak­ing the po­lit­i­cally risky lead in shep­herd­ing leg­is­la­tion on di­vi­sive mat­ters.

But so far, none of these ap­proaches has pro­duced what GOP lead­ers on Capi­tol Hill hoped they would af­ter their party won the White House and Congress in Novem­ber: con­trol.

“It’s not so much their power as their abil­ity to in­flu­ence the pres­i­dent,” said for­mer Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee chair-

man Michael Steele. Trump, he said, is “rec­og­niz­ing: ‘I don’t just have to play with you, Paul and Mitch. I get to play with Chuck and Nancy, as well.’ ”

“Chuck and Nancy” are Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who over din­ner with Trump on Wed­nes­day night agreed to work on a deal to save from de­por­ta­tion young un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants who were brought to this coun­try as chil­dren.

“Paul and Mitch,” more for­mally House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell, were not in­vited. Trump called both men Thurs­day morn­ing to catch them up — well af­ter the rest of the coun­try learned the news.

There has been con­sid­er­able dis­pute since the din­ner about what, ex­actly, Trump and the Democrats agreed to over their meal of honey sesame crispy beef and choco­late cream pie.

To hear Repub­li­can lead­ers on Capi­tol Hill tell it, what­ever it was, it was no big deal.

It was merely a “deal to make a deal,” ex­plained Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), McCon­nell’s top deputy. Or “an agree­ment to agree,” he said a few min­utes later, find­ing a dif­fer­ent way to say the same thing.

On the other side of the Capi­tol, Ryan had to deal with ques­tions at a news con­fer­ence where he would have pre­ferred to deal with queries about the fund­ing bills he was tout­ing.

“Have you asked the pres­i­dent to at least check with you be­fore he makes an agree­ment with Democrats?” one reporter asked.

Ryan chuck­led through the ques­tion af­ter sip­ping from a wa­ter cup.

“First off, there’s no agree­ment,” he replied. “The pres­i­dent and the chief of staff called me from Air Force One to­day to dis­cuss what was dis­cussed. And it was a dis­cus­sion, not an agree­ment or a ne­go­ti­a­tion.”

Re­gard­less of the la­bel, Trump had sent a clear mes­sage: For the mo­ment, at least, McCon­nell and Ryan have been stripped of much of the def­er­ence pres­i­dents his­tor­i­cally in­vest in their party’s lead­ers on Capi­tol Hill.

The pres­i­dent’s sud­den de­sire to ne­go­ti­ate with Schumer and Pelosi — they struck a deal last week to raise the debt ceil­ing and keep the govern­ment from shut­ting down, over­rul­ing the terms McCon­nell and Ryan had pushed — comes af­ter an un­pro­duc­tive eight months when Repub­li­cans mostly re­lied on their own ranks.

It didn’t work, most point­edly in the failed ef­fort to re­peal and re­place the Af­ford­able Care Act. Af­ter that, some GOP law­mak­ers said, it was no sur­prise that Trump was try­ing a new ap­proach. Some even sug­gested that the strat­egy is re­fresh­ing.

“To me, the power to lead is the power to per­suade,” said Sen. Ron John­son (R-Wis.), who took part in a bi­par­ti­san din­ner with the pres­i­dent this week. “And we need to do a lit­tle more per­sua­sion. As Repub­li­cans, we need to win more po­lit­i­cal ar­gu­ments. Rather than try to mus­cle a vote, we ought to come up with pro­pos­als and find out what works.”

Per­suad­ing Democrats to sup­port Repub­li­can ideas on tax re­form, GOP lead­ers say, will be very chal­leng­ing. In the Se­nate, McCon­nell’s al­lies have con­sis­tently raised this point — as if to sig­nal to the pres­i­dent that his time may be bet­ter spent lock­ing down sup­port in his own party.

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the cham­ber’s third-rank­ing Repub­li­can, said he was “skep­ti­cal” that many Democrats would “want to vote for a tax bill that the White House or the Repub­li­cans up here write.” “We’ll see,” Thune con­cluded. But there are ques­tions about how in­vested Trump is in tra­di­tional Repub­li­can ideas. He has shown a will­ing­ness to stray from GOP or­tho­doxy be­fore. In the tax re­form de­bate, he’s do­ing it again.

In his pub­lic ap­pear­ances and on Twit­ter, Trump has promised a his­toric tax cut with­out ac­knowl­edg­ing the dif­fi­cult trade­offs nec­es­sary to close loop­holes and off­set the rev­enue lost through ma­jor rate re­duc­tions. A fail­ure to pay for those lower rates may mean that the cuts could be only tem­po­rary — dash­ing one of Ryan’s cen­tral goals.

Trump also re­port­edly told Democrats that he would not cut taxes on the rich.

Ear­lier this week, Ryan ap­peared to back away from his long in­sis­tence that the tax plan would not cut govern­ment rev­enue, thus adding to the fed­eral bud­get deficit but po­ten­tially avert­ing the need to make tough choices. A Ryan spokes­woman said af­ter­ward that his re­marks did not re­flect a change of po­si­tion.

Ryan al­lies be­lieve that Trump, by cozy­ing up to Democrats, may have done the speaker a fa­vor to help him man­age the frac­tious con­ser­va­tive wing of his con­fer­ence — giv­ing the speaker a rare chance to de­fend hard-right pri­or­i­ties against Trump’s machi­na­tions.

Se­nior Repub­li­can Se­nate aides, mean­while, in­sisted this week that McCon­nell and his top deputies con­trol what comes to the Se­nate floor and when — not­with­stand­ing what the pres­i­dent de­mands.

Re­spond­ing to Trump’s im­mi­gra­tion meet­ing, McCon­nell is­sued a short state­ment in which he put a not-so-sub­tle onus on the pres­i­dent to make the next move: “We look for­ward to re­ceiv­ing the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s leg­isla­tive pro­posal as we con­tinue our work on these is­sues.”

On the other hand, some McCon­nell al­lies see the pres­i­dent set­ting him­self up to be pri­mar­ily re­spon­si­ble for — and tak­ing credit for — progress on im­mi­gra­tion, an is­sue that has di­vided law­mak­ers for decades. And they wel­come that.

“That’s a fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent place for Congress to be from where they have been,” said Josh Holmes, a for­mer McCon­nell chief of staff.

Be­yond the dif­fi­culty of the leg­isla­tive de­bates, Trump’s over­ture to cen­trist Democrats such as Sens. Joe Manchin III ( W.Va.) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) has put Se­nate Repub­li­cans on more per­ilous ter­rain head­ing into 2018.

A few Repub­li­cans said they view some of Trump’s ges­tures as over the top. At one re­cent tax event in North Dakota that stuck out for many of them, Trump in­vited Heitkamp on­stage and called her a “good woman.” Heitkamp is up for re­elec­tion next year, and McCon­nell and Repub­li­cans view her seat as a prime pickup op­por­tu­nity.

Such moves have gen­er­ated frus­tra­tion at the Na­tional Repub­li­can Se­na­to­rial Com­mit­tee, ac­cord­ing to two Repub­li­cans fa­mil­iar with the sit­u­a­tion who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to de­scribe pri­vate sen­ti­ments.

McCon­nell en­tered this elec­tion cy­cle look­ing at a map ripe for gains to pad his 52-to-48 ma­jor­ity, with many more Democrats than Repub­li­cans de­fend­ing com­pet­i­tive seats — and many in states Trump won. But now, fundrais­ers, strate­gists and other Repub­li­cans with a close eye on Se­nate races are com­plain­ing about can­di­date re­cruit­ing woes they think Trump is fu­el­ing, in­ten­tion­ally or not.

“Peo­ple are by and large in­cred­i­bly pissed,” said one of the Repub­li­cans fa­mil­iar with the sit­u­a­tion.

Con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans are com­ing to terms with the pos­si­bil­ity that they may have to deal with Trump lean­ing into his Demo­cratic out­reach for an ex­tended pe­riod of time. The pres­i­dent has shown no signs that he will back off his new strat­egy any­time soon.

“Many Repub­li­cans re­ally like it,” he told re­porters on Air Force One on Thurs­day.

He added: “I’m a Repub­li­can through and through, but I’m also find­ing that some­times to get things through, it’s not work- ing that way.”

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