Senior Republicans on Capitol Hill fear President Donald Trump’s eagerness to fight a Confederate-tinged culture war and his attacks on fellow Republicans are squandering precious political capital and imperiling their agenda in Congress.
Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell desperately need Trump to help them sell Republicans on a debt ceiling hike by the end of September — a toxic vote for conservatives. And they know they’ll need strong White House leadership to get tax reform over the finish line, a must-do for the conservative base after the embarrassing collapse of their Obamacare repeal effort.
But Trump is preoccupied lately with defending Confederate statues. He hailed some of the protesters fighting the removal of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s likeness as “very fine people” — though they did so at a rally filled with white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
Trump is also going after members of his own party who’ve criticized his response to the deadly Charlottesville protest — not exactly the team-building exercise needed at this moment.
“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” Trump tweeted Thursday morning, later adding: “Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson — who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!”
Republicans are practically pulling their hair out, frustrated over the leadership vacuum they say Trump is creating. The way they see it, the party is gearing up for one of the most politically precarious legislative stretches in recent memory. In addition to the debt ceiling and tax reform, GOP leaders need to avert a government shutdown, strike a long-term spending deal with Democrats and pass a budget that appeases conservatives and moderate Republicans — all in the next couple months.
There are also serious concerns about North Korean’s heightened aggression toward the U.S.
And yet, rank-and-file Republicans have had to drop what they’re doing to repudiate Trump’s remarks on Charlottesville, as have Cabinet members and military officials. Business leaders quit a presidential council en masse.
“I do think there need to be some radical changes,” Republican Sen. Bob Corker told reporters in Tennessee Thursday. “The president has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability or some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful.”
Without an immediate change in his leadership style, Corker added, “our nation is going to go through great peril.”
Top GOP tax writers on the House Ways and Means Committee met in Santa Barbara, Calif., Wednesday to pitch the merits of tax reform to the nation. National attention paid to the event paled in comparison to that focused on Trump’s divisive rhetoric — only the latest example of Trump’s controversies stealing the GOP spotlight.
“These constant tangents create distractions; they force our members to talk about statues and Nazis instead of tax reform,” one senior House GOP aide said Thursday. “Until this White House learns how to actually use the bully pulpit, they’re essentially useless.”
Added another senior GOP source: “The daily five-ring Trump circus hurts our ability to get things done.”
For dozens of Republicans, however, Trump’s recent words are about more than a mere distraction; they’re depriving the party of a much-needed leader.
Conservative lawmakers and outside groups, for instance, are already plotting their resistance to GOP leadership’s expected calls to raise the debt ceiling without spending cuts. Ryan and McConnell will need Trump to give them political cover.
As Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), a member of the whip team, noted in a Thursday interview, Trump is “extremely popular” in deeply conservative districts. So if Trump wants a “clean” debt ceiling increase, he’ll have to be vocal about it and “do the whipping” to get conservatives on board.
Republicans also need Trump engaged and on their side to lock down GOP priorities in a spending deal they’re expected to strike with Democrats this fall. The government runs out of money on Sept. 30. And while leaders are eyeing a short-term patch to buy them more time, many expect an ugly, partisan shutdown fight this winter over Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico.
“We’re going to need him for a lot of things,” said Rooney, who’s still holding out for corresponding cuts for a debt ceiling increase. “We’re going to need him for tax reform, too. He needs to whip these votes, not just to members of Congress but to their constituents.”
But some Hill Republicans worry Trump will continue to be distracted by the controversy of the day.
“Trump is just making September that much more toxic,” said another GOP aide who requested anonymity to speak frankly. “How are we as Republicans supposed to maneuver through some major cliffs if he just sets the whole place on fire?”
During a Thursday morning tweetstorm, GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham noted that Trump’s Charlottesville response was winning praise from racist and begged him to “for the sake of our nation — as our president — please fix this.”
Trump responded by attacking Graham as “publicity seeking” — and rubbing in the South Carolinian’s face his defeat in the 2016 GOP primary. “He just can’t forget his election trouncing,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
That was minutes before Trump shot arrows at Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who in recent weeks has urged Republicans to stand up to Trump. “Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate. He’s toxic!” Trump tweeted.
It was just the latest in a growing list of Trump attacks on Senate Republicans that have also drawn scorn from Hill GOP insiders. Between the jabs at them on Twitter and anger at the president’s reaction to Charlottesville, Republicans see an increasingly soured relationship between Congress and the president — one that could hurt tax reform and other GOP priorities.
Some Republicans felt the Obamacare repeal effort might have actually passed had Trump been more engaged in selling it and less obsessed with White House infighting that’s consumed all of Washington. Like with health care, Republicans can only afford to lose a few votes and still pass a GOP tax bill.
But without allies on the Hill, lawmakers may balk when Trump implores them to take tough votes for his agenda.
“The reality is that every time he attacks a Republican he invites another member in good standing and another segment of the Republican party to abandon him,” Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff, told POLITICO Playbook on Thursday. “When you’re eight months in and Republicans are all you have left, chipping away at the remaining few is a helluva strategy.”
Andy Roth, vice president for government affairs at the Club for Growth, said Trump needs to be laser-focused on tax reform if he hopes to get a bill passed this fall. Tax reform, Roth said “is hard enough as it is.” And “in order to successfully pass tax reform, you need a large amount of unity and focus.”
Right now, Roth said, “there is a big concern” that unity just isn’t there — and that Trump is not doing enough.
“For tax reform to pass, we need the president to be talking about it every day and twice on Sunday,” he added. “He needs to go out across the country and push for it and fight for it and talk about it all the time. It’s the single-most important thing between now and the end of the year.”
John Bresnahan contributed to this report.
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