Could President Trump Count on Republicans to Pass His Agenda?

Experts question whether agenda items would even get floor votes

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (left), seen here with Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, at a rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, in July. Experts say Corker, the Foreign Relations chairman, is the kind of lawmaker who would be a wise ally for a President Trump. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (left), seen here with Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, at a rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, in July. Experts say Corker, the Foreign Relations chairman, is the kind of lawmaker who would be a wise ally for a President Trump. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 22, 2016 at 5:00am

Much of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has seemed ad hoc, from the off-the-cuff remarks to campaign staff turnover. And all evidence suggests a President Trump would advance his legislative agenda in the same impromptu manner.

The controversial Republican nominee’s policy proposals and pronouncements do not fit neatly into an ideological box. While President George W. Bush could count on Republicans in both chambers to support most of his legislative asks, experts say Trump would likely lack such a dependable bloc of partners.

For instance, it is unclear how the billionaire and former reality television star would secure the 60 votes in the Senate needed to pass spending and policy legislation. In fact, William Galston, a former Bill Clinton adviser, now at the Brookings Institution, summed up the situation this way: “Sixty? I don’t see how he could get to 50.”

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Trump and his aides would have to assemble improvised, temporary coalitions to pass his more controversial proposals, experts say. And should Trump prove unable — or uninterested — in outreach, congressional leaders would have to choose between sending him bipartisan bills and doing very little.

Here are a handful of members who would be key to a Trump agenda:

The speaker

Speaker Paul D. Ryan has been lukewarm about many of Trump’s campaign-trail pronouncements, saying that they fail to reflect the beliefs of the GOP or the United States. The Wisconsin Republican might be even less excited about the legislative proposals of his party’s nominee should Trump win in November and Republicans maintain control of the House.

Ryan is the quintessential Washington wonk. Trump puts gut instincts above the thick plans favored by the former Ways and Means chairman. The pair’s rocky relationship does not conjure images of a coordinated effort to move the kind of conservative legislation that has defined Ryan’s career to Trump’s desk.

Trump could have at some point during the campaign endorsed part of Ryan’s carefully written House Republican agenda. So far, however, Trump has ignored Ryan’s work.

“Ryan has already put his moral political soul in jeopardy by endorsing [Trump]. If he simply goes along … with Trump’s agenda, the entire Washington press corps will have a bunch of quotes to throw back at him,” Galston said. “So I agree that Ryan likely would choose to just not put Trump’s bills on floor … I would expect the speaker would focus on his own agenda and focus on Donald Trump’s agenda only if some items match conservative goals — and that’s probably a minority of issues.”

The ‘Big Eight’

The bombastic New York billionaire has raised eyebrows among Republican national security hawks by advancing ideas that, to them, sound isolationist. For instance, he has proposed that a Trump administration would not defend NATO members if they were attacked, suggested that the U.S. should focus mostly on domestic matters, and called the American military “a disaster” unable to win the country’s armed conflicts.

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“Trump lacks the character, values and experience to be president,” a group of Republican security experts, many of them former advisers to Bush, wrote in a letter last week. “He weakens U.S. moral authority as the leader of the free world.”

Lawmakers from both parties will have chances to block, alter or delay any major security policy changes Trump might pursue as president. “On defense policy, this will be driven by the ‘Big Eight’ [chairmen and ranking members of congressional defense panels] as is tradition,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a former Senate defense policy aide now at the American Enterprise Institute. “Chief among them will be [Senate Armed Services ranking member] Jack Reed,” she said. The Rhode Island Democrat could become chairman if control of the Senate flips.

But a few still-fresh GOP faces could align with Trump on certain issues. “There are a few others moving up in influence. First to come to mind is [Arkansas] Sen. Tom Cotton,” Eaglen said. “He is poised to become a GOP party leader on national security issues — especially in the Senate — and with it the ability to sway increasing number of votes on key issues.”

The loyalists

There are a few pro-Trump Republicans whom observers believe would accommodate his legislative whims. But their camp is too small to pass legislation alone.

Experts say House tea party Republicans would likely get behind some of Trump’s anti-spending, anti-immigrant and isolationist plans. Across the Capitol, there is Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabamian who helped craft the nominee’s controversial immigration plan.

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“If I were advising a President Trump, I would tell him to spend as a little time as possible with Sessions and as much time as possible with [Sen.] Bob Corker,” Galston said of the former Chattanooga, Tennessee, mayor. “Corker is a pretty straightforward, old-fashioned advocate of economic development, and sensible ways of promoting it. … Corker has actually built something, a vibrant city. Trump should respect that. But Sessions would reinforce all of what has so many members hesitant about supporting Trump.”

The family

Trump’s children aren’t members of Congress. But as his tumultuous White House bid has shown, the GOP nominee values his own counsel first, his family’s second and everyone else’s a distant third.

While a President Trump might listen to Sessions, Ryan and McConnell from time to time, it’s a safer bet that Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric Trump would become his closest advisers on legislating — or going it alone via executive actions.

“He would need to listen to a whole bunch of people,” Galston said. “He seems willing to listen to a very few people outside of his family. If I were to list the members in Congress on both sides of the aisle that know more than Mr. Trump on policy, I’d need the rest of the afternoon.”

And what happens if Trump tires of the painstaking work of regularly building coalitions by twisting arms and charming members?

“Congress could have more power because he would have no real policy agenda,” said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky who works on social policy issues at the Third Way think tank. “If leadership decides to put together bipartisan pieces of legislation, it would put the policymaking power back with Congress.”

Contact Bennett at Follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT.