Republicans never knew how much they loved Barack Obama.
Three months into Donald Trump’s presidency, congressional Republicans enter a two-week Easter recess without a major legislative victory to brag about to voters back home. While they used to blame the ex-president for all their problems — pointing the finger at a Democratic White House for their inability to pass GOP priorities — their beloved scapegoat is gone.
That means they now bear responsibility for the party’s inability to land any of Trump’s campaign promises in what should have been some of the most productive months of his presidency. Indeed, House GOP infighting has all but suffocated their longtime promise to repeal Obamacare — and it’s threatening their chance to pass tax reform and fund Trump’s border wall.
“Clearly, President Obama gave us a common focus,” said Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.). “Now that he’s gone, we have to govern. That’s always a bit of a challenge when you’re not just the opposition, but you’re now the governing majority. I hope when we go home for the next two weeks, our constituents will remind us of that so we can get on track when we come back.”
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Speaker Paul Ryan had a plan, with a timeline that included sending Trump a GOP Obamacare alternative by the close of this week. Then, Congress would quickly fund the government, including the first piece of a new U.S.-Mexico wall, and move onto a sweeping tax reform package unlike anything the country had seen since 1986.
But the Wisconsin Republican and his top lieutenants miscalculated. They thought they could get the White House to pressure the House Freedom Caucus into backing a bill conservatives deemed “Obamacare 2.0.” The intra-party war that ensued effectively killed the House bill entirely, leaving little indication of a revival anytime soon.
Meanwhile, senior Republicans are already signaling they won’t fight hard for Trump’s wall, in order to avoid a government shutdown showdown at the end of the month. And tax reform looks like a truly heavy lift. Senate Republicans can at least boast that they muscled through Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, but that’s about it.
“That’s the burden of being in the majority: you can’t blame anyone else. You’re in charge,” said Rep. Mike Simpson, a senior Republican and leadership ally. The Idaho Republican said he thinks some GOP constituents will be angry and could try to boot them from office.
It’s a much different dynamic than what they’d become accustomed to under Obama, when they deflected heat to the Democratic commander-in-chief. During an interview off the House floor, Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) said divided government also united the conference — at least some of the time.
“Not only is there someone else for whom to place the blame, there’s a unifying, rallying point of, ‘If only we didn’t have that person, or that entity, or that party, or that whatever, we would be able to do X, Y and Z,’” he said.
Now, of course, Republicans control everything. And they’re still not able to get their priorities over the finish line.
House leaders feel the same frustration. When asked whether his GOP colleagues missed Obama, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy laughed out loud while walking back to his office this week.
“There was Hillary, there was Susan Rice, there was a lot of ’em,” the California Republican said. “Harry Reid was unifying!”
McCarthy, though, pushed back against the criticism that House Republicans have accomplished nothing in almost three months of total Washington control: “How long did it take Barack Obama to pass health care? Sixteen months. So give us a little break here. We’re working.”
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said Republicans are “very glad” Obama is gone. “There’s still a lot of things we’re unified on. We’ve passed a lot of [Congressional Review Act resolutions] to the president and that he’s signed that have undone a lot of Obama regulations, and that’s permanent, by the way. That’s some big wins that don’t get reported a lot.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also argued Friday that the 13 Obama-era regulations the GOP has killed amounted to a “significant” achievement. “They’re going to save the economy billions of dollars,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters.
Of course, McConnell’s bigger victory was his year-long power play to deny Obama a chance to fill a Supreme Court vacancy and instead install Gorsuch — even if it meant he had to kill the filibuster for high court nominees and erode an essential characteristic of the Senate.
Apart from that much-needed GOP win, McConnell acknowledged the party’s slow start and called for a bit of patience. “Look, we’re just in the first quarter of the year,” he said. “There’s much left to be done.”
Since House Republicans can’t blame the left, they’ve turned on one another, obliterating the message of unity the party took up after Trump won last fall.
Ryan, for his part, has delicately suggested some of his own members don’t know what it means to govern. His conference, he’s said numerous times over the past few weeks, is experiencing “growing pains.”
Meanwhile, Freedom Caucus members — and more than a few mainstream Republicans outside the group — aren’t happy with the process Ryan employed to craft the health care bill. They argue there wasn’t enough member buy-in, and they’re resentful that they didn’t get their say.
Even Rep. Rod Blum of Iowa, a conservative in a swing district who benefited from Ryan’s personal fundraising assistance during the 2016 election, told POLITICO he wished the speaker would shoulder more of the blame for what happened.
“I come from the private sector, and in the private sector, the leader stands up if something doesn’t work and says it’s 100 percent my fault,” Blum said. “That’s what a leader does. I’d like to see that in Washington, D.C. … He, as the House leader, should say it’s 100 percent my fault, and there shouldn’t be any finger-pointing.”
Conservatives and centrists are also at one another’s throats. Freedom Caucus members say moderate members of the House Republican Conference no longer want to repeal Obamacare. Rep. Mo Brooks singled out centrist Republicans in the Tuesday Group for the fact that Republicans will return to their districts with Obamacare fully intact.
“It’s very paradoxical today that our Republican Congress could, when Barack Obama was president, pass a repeal of Obamacare,” the Alabama Republican said. “Yet, now that Donald Trump is president, we lack the ability to pass the repeal of Obamacare. To me the primary difference is that the Tuesday Group does not want to repeal Obamacare. And as long as they don’t … it’s difficult to get the majority votes needed.”
GOP leaders, moderates and dozens of mainstream Republicans across the conference, however, still think the Freedom Caucus set fire to the House. And as Sanford noted Wednesday, the bickering has created a GOP identity crisis.
“External party struggles — you can have an open food fight and say, I disagree with Nancy Pelosi and she’s going to throw breadcrumbs my way and I’m going to throw breadcrumbs her way,” Sanford said. “If it’s within the fraternity, then it’s a question of — wait — who represents the fraternity? Are we right? Are we left? Are we center? Who is us?”
John Bresnahan contributed to this report.
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