Hill Republicans fret over ebbing influence
Some downplay Trump's outreach to Democrats as big issues loom
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s latest tendency to turn to Democrats to hash out major legislative deals has left GOP leaders facing a new reality as a daunting fall agenda looms: They are at their lowest moment of influence of the 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 thousands of young undocumented immigrants.
Some are 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.
Others are downplaying Trump’s talks with Democrats, issuing warnings that the effort could prove futile, and looking for a silver lining — that the president is taking the politically risky lead shepherding through divisive matters.
But so far, none of these efforts have produced what GOP leaders hoped they would have after their party won the White House and Congress: control.
“It’s not so much their power as their ability to influence the president,” said former Republican National Committee Chairman 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 Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who over dinner with Trump on Wednesday agreed to work on a plan to save young undocumented immigrants brought here as children from deportation.
Paul and Mitch, more formally Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., were not invited.
Trump called them Thursday morning to catch them up — after the country already was learning the news.
There has been considerable dispute over what, exactly, Trump and the Democrats agreed to.
To hear Republican leaders on Capitol Hill tell it, it was no big deal whatever it was.
It was merely a “deal to make a deal,” explained Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., McConnell’s top deputy. Or “an agreement to agree,” finding a different way to say the same thing.
On the other side of the Capitol, Ryan had to deal with a series of questions about the Democrats at a news conference where he would have preferred to deal with queries about 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 him.
“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 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 also 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 in which Republicans 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, said some GOP lawmakers, it was no surprise Trump was trying a new approach.
“To me, the power to lead is the power to persuade,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. “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.”
But 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 served locking down support in his own party.
But there are questions about how invested Trump is in traditional Republican ideas. He has shown a willingness to stray from the GOP orthodoxy before. In the tax reform debate, he’s doing it again.
In his public appearances and on his Twitter account, he has promised a historic tax cut without acknowledging the difficult trade-offs necessary to close loopholes and offset lost revenue.
A failure to pay for those lower rates may mean that the cuts could be only temporary, dashing one of Ryan’s goals.
Trump also reportedly told Schumer and Pelosi, during their dinner, that he would not cut taxes on the rich after all.
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.
Some congressional Republicans are coming to terms with the possibility they may have to deal with Trump leaning into his Democratic outreach for an extended period. The president has shown no signs he is preparing to back off.
“Many Republicans really like it,” he told reporters Thursday, adding: “I’m a Republican through and through, but I’m also finding that sometimes to get things through, it’s not working that way.”