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Opinion: The Biggest Mess in Washington? Not on Capitol Hill

Early legislative losses a bad omen for Trump administration

President Donald Trump broke his silence on a special prosecutor looking into possible connections between his campaign and Russia. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump broke his silence on a special prosecutor looking into possible connections between his campaign and Russia. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)


It’s early May in the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency and the White House is already out of juice on Capitol Hill. Mark May 2, 2017 as the day the cup ran dry. 

That’s when Rep. Fred Upton, the former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told a Michigan radio station he would oppose the new GOP Obamacare repeal bill because of the way the legislation treats people with pre-existing medical conditions. On Sunday, Trump told “Face the Nation” the bill guarantees insurance protections for people with pre-existing conditions. But on Tuesday, Upton said the bill would “torpedo” those protections. “It’s not going to get my ‘yes’ vote the way that it is,” he said.

There was a day when a newly elected president like Trump could call a member in his own party like Upton, representing a district the president just won, and ask that member to do him a favor and vote yes. Trump won Upton’s Michigan district 51-43 percent over Hillary Clinton and Upton has voted 100 percent of the time in support of the White House this year . But on this crucial issue, when Trump desperately needs a win to deliver on Republicans’ seven-year promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, no public assurance from the president or political pressure from the White House could make this reliable Republican pull the trigger.

Without a CBO score on the bill or even text for members to read, the White House is asking GOP members to trust them on the politics, the policy, and the real-life consequences of this massive bill. As of Tuesday afternoon, Upton and at least twenty other House members were saying no, leaving Trump one vote away from being legislatively neutered inside his own party three months into his presidency.

In a normal presidency, in a normal year, a president has a bag full of political capital to convince, cajole and otherwise jam members of Congress to get his priorities through. Newly elected and riding the tide of a mandate, most first-term presidents get at least one big win, if not more, out of Congress, based solely on the weight of the office they have just taken over. Even if the legislation is controversial, reverence for the Oval Office, combined with the president’s popularity, could typically get priorities passed.

Barack Obama got the Affordable Care Act out of his first term. George W. Bush pushed through a major tax cut and Medicare Part D. Bill Clinton stumbled early, but still got a federal assault weapons ban passed in 1994.

Mojo deficit

But the moment comes for every White House when they’ve lost their mojo. Bush’s 2006 midterms stopped most of his reforms in their tracks. Clinton took some serious time off legislating while he dealt with his impeachment.

But the fact that Trump is losing votes so early in his first year is a terrible omen for everything else he wants to do. If he can’t deliver on a promise that nearly every Republican in the country made in 2016, it’s hard to see how the administration will get tax reform, infrastructure, banking reform or any foreign policy idea done without drastically changing course. The first person who has to change is Trump himself.

On Tuesday morning, as Republican leaders were still trying to whip the votes on the health care bill, the morning shows were nearly all focused on the string of bizarre statements that Trump made in interviews he gave to mark his 100th day in office.

Instead of focusing on health care in those interviews, Trump talked about his willingness to meet with dictators from North Korea and the Philippines. He mused that his new job is harder than his old job. He wondered why nobody bothered to try to avoid the Civil War.

A little after 9 a.m., as reports of GOP defections on health care increased, Trump tweeted, “Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!” He apparently fixated on Democrats saying they’d gotten what they wanted out of the omnibus compromise that was struck with Republicans late Sunday.

Instead of claiming credit for keeping the government open this week, Trump was inexplicably suggesting a shutdown in September to teach the Democrats a lesson.

None of Trump’s tweets or interviews were happening in a vacuum. At the beginning of Rep. Upton’s radio interview Tuesday, the hosts joked about Trump’s comments on Andrew Jackson.

Presidential punchline

“I would confess that I’m not a scholar on Andrew Jackson,” Upton said. “But I do know he did quite a bit before the start of the Civil War.” Trump was not the president in that interview, he was the punchline, and he has only himself to blame.

When the president muses about the needlessness of the Civil War, or Andrew Jackson’s opinion of a war he never lived to see, or the honor of meeting with Kim Jong Un, even though he is imprisoning Americans for no legitimate reason, Trump is not just damaging his credibility as a president, he is draining away the power of his leadership.

Donald Trump is right that there’s a mess in Washington. But it’s not on Capitol Hill. It’s on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue. Until he fixes his own mess, Trump shouldn’t count on the Republican Congress to pass his bills for him. 

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