Health care, tax reform, Russia loom as Trump, Congress leave town
All in all, July was not a great month for the Trump White House.
Setting aside the staffing drama and the brief rise and fall of the Mooch, the president’s top legislative priority stalled in the Senate, his son’s attempt to obtain politically damaging information about Hillary Clinton from Russia was revealed, and Congress overwhelmingly passed legislation imposing new sanctions that he had threatened to veto.
As Trump prepares to embark on a 17-day vacation in Bedminster Friday, his poll numbers continue to slip, Republicans in Congress are growing restless, and his ability to execute the ambitious agenda he campaigned on is somewhat in doubt.
President Trump’s current average approval rating is 38.5 percent, according to Real Clear Politics. The long-term significance of such numbers early in an administration is debatable, but with the president’s favorability falling even in some right-leaning polls, it is hard to see it as anything but bad news for the White House.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday set Trump’s overall approval rating at a new low of 33 percent, with favorability among Republicans slipping from 84 percent to 76 percent since June.
“That’s the kind of territory where you can have a reasonable discussion about Democrats taking back the House in 2018,” said Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball.
Perhaps as a result of that weakness or just out of frustration with the president’s flouting of political norms, Republicans in Congress have been emboldened to publicly defy Trump.
On health care, his push to get a repeal of the Affordable Care Act through the Senate failed in dramatic fashion with three Republicans siding with Democrats despite pressure and threats from the White House. Senators have also largely ignored his repeated demands that they change the rules to eliminate the legislative filibuster.
Trump’s unexpected announcement last week that he plans to ban transgender troops from the military in any capacity has been criticized by some prominent Republicans. His bashing of his own attorney general has drawn fairly widespread criticism from within his party. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is now floating a bill that would prevent Trump from firing the special counsel investigating Russian election interference.
Democratic strategist Scott Ferson said the latest critical statements by GOP stalwarts like Sens. John McCain and Graham represent “the first fissures in the Republican ‘nothing to see here’ wall.”
“The people who have taken an oath and take their oath seriously on the Republican side at some point might think there’s a real problem here,” he said.
According to Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, however, those who are impeding the president are hurting their own party’s chances to retain control of Congress.
“What Congress has to understand is that the Trump administration must deliver results, particularly by passing tax reform before the 2018 midterms,” he said.
Whatever Republicans think of the president’s behavior, Trump’s policy agenda still mostly aligns with theirs, and with their voters.
“Voters are not going to fire them over Trump’s tweets…. Running away from Trump is stupid,” O’Connell said.
The thing Trump’s GOP critics are forgetting, he added, is that helping the president helps them.
“The worst thing they can do is not deliver results,” he said.
One caveat to any analysis of where Trump stands today is that it is still 15 months until the midterm elections and more than three years until he is up for reelection. There is more than enough time for him to rack up so many wins America gets tired of winning, but the losses could start piling up too.
These are some of the big issues awaiting Trump and Congress when they return to Washington. A victory could help the president build momentum heading into 2018. Failure could further hobble a struggling White House.
Although Trump continues to demand another vote on an Obamacare repeal bill in the Senate, there is no indication GOP leaders are any closer to securing the 50th vote necessary to force a tiebreaker by Vice President Mike Pence.
“Until you show me where the elusive 50th vote is, they’re done on repeal,” O’Connell said.
Because Republicans can only use reconciliation once per fiscal year and they likely need the 2018 bill for tax reform, he explained, they may only have until the end of September to pass health care reform without Democratic votes.
Meanwhile, time is running out for Trump to decide whether to continue cost-sharing subsidies that help insurers cover low-income families, for next year and for the rest of this year. Republicans have opposed the payments as “bailouts” for insurers and they disputed President Obama’s authority to spend the money without an appropriation by Congress.
Insurers submitting proposed rates for 2018 in several states have cited uncertainty over these payments as a large factor in their requested premium increases.
Trump has often said his preferred approach would be to let Obamacare “implode,” but Republicans in Congress are increasingly calling for at least short-term action to stabilize the markets. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee plans to hold bipartisan hearings on the issue in September.
“Because he’s president and he could get blamed for problems with the health care system, it would make sense if he pursued a line that did try to stabilize markets,” Skelley said, though he added there is no reason to think Trump will change course.
Ferson noted that Trump’s stance on Obamacare is not ideological, so he might be inclined to get behind anything he can call a victory, even if it is only a short-term fix.
“The president is not dumb…. He’s looking for a win,” he said. “He wants to put Ws up on the board.”
Trump has promised the largest tax reform in decades, and Congress appears poised to tackle the issue when they return to Washington in September. The White House has set forth some ideas for corporate and personal income tax changes, and Republicans in the House have proposals of their own.
“I do think there’s a lot more consensus on it,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Wednesday.
It is unclear how large of a role Trump, who rarely ventured into the weeds of health care policy or actively tried to sell the Republican plan to voters, will play in this debate.
“A major problem for President Trump is that he has really not driven any policy debates,” Skelley said.
If he wants to, though, Ferson agreed that Trump still has the political clout on the right to take the lead.
“He controls the dialogue so everything is seen through his lens,” he said. “It’s impossible to talk about it differently than he wants to talk about it.”
According to O’Connell, this is another case where helping Trump helps Republicans accomplish something that has been on their agenda for years.
“If Congress is too stupid to see that he should have the weight and they should listen to him, they’re going to be out [in 2018],” he said.
After Trump signed the sanctions bill Wednesday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev blasted the president’s “total weakness” for allowing himself to be “outwitted” by Congress.
“The issue of new sanctions came about, primarily, as another way to knock Trump down a peg,” Medvedev said in a Facebook post. “New steps are to come, and they will ultimately aim to remove him from power.”
The legislation, which also imposed new sanctions on Iran and North Korea, raised the ire of the White House because it restricted the president’s ability to lift the sanctions.
“By limiting the Executive’s flexibility, this bill makes it harder for the United States to strike good deals for the American people, and will drive China, Russia, and North Korea much closer together,” Trump said in a statement Wednesday. “The Framers of our Constitution put foreign affairs in the hands of the President. This bill will prove the wisdom of that choice.”
According to O’Connell, President Obama made similar arguments against bills that infringed on his power, but Trump was backed into a corner by the politics and media pressure surrounding the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“He wound up ceding presidential authority to a dysfunctional Congress,” he said.
Ferson said Trump’s signing statement was gratuitous and only served to underscore the way the bill sapped his authority.
“He went out of his way to signal, I’m guessing, to Putin that he’s holding up their bargain,” he said, “which makes me wonder what their bargain is.”
With the Wall Street Journal reporting that special counsel Robert Mueller has now impaneled a grand jury as part of his investigation, these questions are unlikely to fade anytime soon.
Absent any significant legislative achievements in his first six months, Trump took on another potentially intractable issue Wednesday when he publicly backed a bill sponsored by Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue that would shift the U.S. to a more merit-based legal immigration system.
Ferson said the bill reinforces the “right-wing agenda” that some Trump aides have been pursuing all along.
Republican response to the proposal on Capitol Hill has been mixed, and the odds of getting the 60 voted needed to pass such a bill in the Senate currently seem insurmountable. Cutting back on legal immigration by unskilled workers who cannot speak English could prove popular with Trump’s white working class base, though, even if it has little chance of becoming law.
“It’s not just about delivering results,” O’Connell said. “It’s making sure that the working class in the Rust Belt and the Sun Belt think you’re working tirelessly on their behalf.”