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Annual Capitol Insiders Survey: The Trump Effect

Tensions on the Hill from last year have carried over into 2017

Republicans staffers on Capitol Hill are still not comfortable with President Donald Trump, the latest Capitol Insiders Survey finds. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Republicans staffers on Capitol Hill are still not comfortable with President Donald Trump, the latest Capitol Insiders Survey finds. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Last year’s election was humbling for pollsters, and the Capitol Insiders Survey was no exception. The vast majority of congressional staffers surveyed by CQ Roll Call in the days before the election — 91 percent — predicted a Hillary Clinton win. Only 6 percent thought Donald Trump could pull it off.

Still, the results reflect how Trump’s win blindsided the Washington establishment. The majority of Republican aides said consistently during the campaign that they wouldn’t vote for Trump.

Those tensions have carried over into 2017, in what has proved to be perhaps the least productive first 100 days for any president in modern history.

The most recent poll results, from April, show why: Republicans on Capitol Hill are still not comfortable with Trump, who, even during his so-called honeymoon, has not yet convinced his party to back a repeal of President Barack Obama’s health care law, even as he touted House passage of a bill that would do it.

But Republicans don’t have a monopoly on infighting. Democratic respondents are torn between those who’d like to stonewall Trump at every turn and those who think it wiser to look for areas of compromise.

Thus far, it’s been a recipe for partisanship and gridlock. Beyond rolling back some of Obama’s late-term regulations and confirming Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, Congress has not gotten much done. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s move to permit the confirmation of Gorsuch on a simple majority vote, eliminating the possibility of filibustering Supreme Court nominees, has only exacerbated the party divide.

If Republicans fail to use the budget reconciliation process to repeal the 2010 health care law, as still seems more likely than not, they will have an even harder go of it enacting new laws that Senate Democrats can block with the filibuster. That is, of course, if McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, sticks to his promise to continue the 60-vote threshold for most legislation.

Democratic obstruction

Between the beginning of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and the end of Obama’s, only 18 Cabinet nominees drew significant opposition in Senate confirmation votes, in that at least 20 senators voted against them. Since Jan. 23, when the Senate confirmed Mike Pompeo as CIA director, 13 of Trump’s Cabinet choices have drawn at least 27 senators in opposition, and one — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — 50, with the tie to confirm her broken by Vice President Mike Pence.

Meanwhile, of the 132 votes the Senate has taken this year, 103 have split a majority of Democrats from a majority of Republicans. If that rate (78 percent) of party unity votes holds, it would come second to the modern mark of 78.2 percent set in 2010.

The Democratic staffers who’ve responded to CQ Roll Call’s Capitol Insiders Survey indicate why. Insomuch as they reflect the views of their bosses, more of the aides say they are inclined to try to block the Republican agenda than find areas of compromise.

The gap between those who would play defense and those who’d try to cut deals hit a high in the most recent poll, when 76 percent of the Democratic respondents said they’d prefer to block the GOP, compared to only 15 percent who’d reach across the aisle. The remainder were unsure.

Democrats have realized that they should not “lead with the outstretched hand and hope they are met halfway,” says Kevin Murphy, a former House aide to Democrat Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. “That’s never worked in the past.”

Trump’s victory in November, combined with the wounds of the Obama years — when Democrats felt that congressional Republicans stonewalled Obama’s agenda in an effort to gain electoral advantage — have driven liberals into a rage. It’s notable that of the 18 Cabinet nominees to face significant opposition on the Senate floor during the six presidencies from Carter’s to Obama’s, 10 of those came during Obama’s two terms.

At the same time, the protest movement that’s targeted Trump has also aimed its fury at Democratic lawmakers deemed insufficiently tough in opposing the new president.

It’s at the heart of why Democratic senators last month filibustered the Gorsuch nomination, even though they understood that it would be a futile gesture. Republicans then changed the rules, permitting a simple majority of voting senators to confirm. It will make it impossible for Democrats to mount a fight — at least in the next 18 months, until the midterm election — if Trump gets another court pick.

Still, it was demanded by liberal interest groups such as the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Alliance for Justice. Nan Aron, president of the alliance, says she applauds Democratic senators “for sticking to their principles despite intense pressure from the other side.”

“What’s new is that the furious anger that we’ve seen in the Republican base for the past six or seven years has spread to the Democratic base,” says Michael Steel, a managing director at the political consulting firm Hamilton Place Strategies who was previously a spokesman for former Republican House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio. “It’s going to be harder and harder for them to work on a bipartisan basis.”

The Trump agenda

For Republican aides, the return of GOP control of both the legislative and executive branches this year brought on a spate of wishful thinking that has not subsided, even as Republicans have warred over how to repeal the 2010 health care law as well as over the fundamental pieces of their tax overhaul.

After the election, when CQ Roll Call asked GOP aides to rate the chances that Trump would be able to keep a number of his most prominent campaign promises, staffers were very optimistic. In the November poll, for instance, almost every GOP aide — literally 73 of the 74 who answered the question — predicted that it was at least somewhat likely that they’d repeal and replace the 2010 law.

Likewise, nearly 9 in 10 thought it at least somewhat likely that they’d overhaul the tax code. Solid majorities also figured they’d get a $1 trillion infrastructure program; eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood, the women’s health care provider that performs abortions; and deport at least 2 million unauthorized immigrants who’ve committed crimes.

By April, expectations had dropped for a health care overhaul, but by no means completely. Despite the wide divisions among congressional Republicans that emerged during the debate over House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s health care bill — with conservatives arguing for complete repeal of Obama’s law and moderate Republicans concerned about throwing too many people off their insurance — two-thirds of the GOP aides still said they saw good odds of eventually enacting a repeal-and-replace law.

And even while Republicans on Capitol Hill and business interest groups war over Ryan’s proposal for a border adjustment tax as the centerpiece of a tax overhaul, more than 8 in 10 of the GOP poll-takers said during the last week of April that they were likely to get a tax deal, down from nearly 9 in 10 who said the same in November after the election. The proposal would essentially increase taxes on imports while exempting exports. Firms that rely on imports, such as retailers, along with their allies in Congress, are adamantly opposed.

The inexplicable optimism was clearest, perhaps, in the percentage of GOP respondents who give good odds for a border wall, still at 33 percent in April from 39 percent in November, even as Congress declined to include funding for the wall in the fiscal 2017 spending law enacted this month.

GOP expectations have actually risen for changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement, from 44 percent in November to 61 percent in April; for elimination of the defense sequestration, to 75 percent from 72 percent; and even for implementation of Trump’s plan to temporarily bar entry to the United States of people from certain Muslim-majority countries, which has increased among the GOP aides to 41 percent in April from 39 percent in November, even as federal courts have now stopped the president’s first and second efforts to close the door.

The Republicans are showing patience in the face of growing pains, says Lisa Camooso Miller, a partner at Reset Public Affairs and a onetime spokeswoman for former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican. They expect “they are going to figure it out, that they’ll eventually find their way,” she says.

Leadership approval

Between the ascension of Ryan as House speaker in October 2015 and the election a year later, the Capitol Insiders Survey queried Hill aides each month about their party’s congressional leadership. The average approval rating was 76 percent, ranging from a low of 54 percent, given by Senate Republican staffers to their leaders in March 2016, to the 91 percent that Senate Democratic aides awarded theirs in September.

Since the election, the grading has gotten harder. The average leadership score has dropped to 68 percent and staffers are handing out some low marks. Only 52 percent of House Democratic aides said they approved of Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team, for example, in November. Her lowest score in the year preceding the election was 66 percent, in February 2016.

Also in November, the House Democratic staffers criticized their chiefs for failing to develop a new generation of leaders — 83 percent said they needed to do more — and even wavered on whether Pelosi should stay on as minority leader. The narrowest of pluralities, 38 percent to 36 percent, said they preferred that Pelosi continue, over her challenger in the party leadership election, Tim Ryan of Ohio. Add in the Senate Democratic staffers and she would have lost had it been Democratic staffers voting, and not their bosses.

It was a reflection of the disappointment in an election result that saw House Democrats pick up a net of only six seats when many more were expected, says Brendan Daly, a former Pelosi spokesman who is now senior director for communications at Save the Children Action Network, an advocacy group. “The Democrats lost the election and this is blowback,” he says.

Pelosi’s rating has recovered since, to 72 percent in April. But other leaders have faced dissension in their own ranks.

Ryan’s approval rating, which averaged 76 percent in the year after his rise to the speakership, sunk to 44 percent in March after his effort to repeal the health care law collapsed. It was at 51 percent in April as Ryan moved, successfully, to pass a health care bill.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer saw his rating fall even lower, to 40 percent, in February as the New Yorker and his fellow Democrats struggled to slow Trump’s Cabinet nominees. That was even worse than his January approval rating, 50 percent. It’s recovered since, to 67 percent in April, after Schumer led Democrats in a symbolic filibuster of Gorsuch and blocked GOP riders in the fiscal 2017 omnibus spending bill.

Schumer’s April score was still lower than the lowest that Senate Democratic aides gave to his predecessor as minority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, in the year leading up to the election. Reid’s lowest approval rating that year was 78 percent.

The Democratic base, including many Capitol Hill staffers, is eager for a strong show of resistance, says Jim Manley, a former Reid spokesman. “I am beginning to think more and more the only move left is to filibuster come hell or high water,” Manley says.

The only leader immune to the dissension is McConnell, who is thus far untainted by the debate over health care and has won the GOP its biggest success so far of 2017, the confirmation of Gorsuch. Senate Republican aides have rewarded him with an average monthly approval score since the election of 81 percent.

Trump and the congressional GOP

Back in October, days before the election, only 3 in 10 of the Republican aides who filled out that month’s Capitol Insiders Survey said they planned to vote for Trump. Most said they would either cast their ballot for a third-party candidate or stay home. Nearly 1 out of 5 said they’d vote for Clinton.

It made plain how much Trump’s candidacy, in which he’d tossed aside GOP orthodoxy on foreign policy and on issues like trade, had upset the Republican establishment in Washington.

Those differences have not gone away, even as Republicans remain hopeful that Trump will help them enact a conservative agenda.

“The party came together on the recent health care vote, and that is a very positive sign,” says Sam Geduldig, a partner at the CGCN Group lobbying firm and a former Boehner aide. “However, you have several factions that operate as the Republican Party now and they need to do a better job of communicating or the party and the country will suffer.”

A big majority of Republican aides who filled out CQ Roll Call’s April poll said that their differences with Trump remained, to the tune of 65 percent, compared to 31 percent who said they’d put them aside.

That’s perhaps a result of the realization that big legislative accomplishments, like repealing the 2010 health care law, aren’t going to come easily. In January, a narrow plurality of the aides, 45 percent, said Republicans had put the divisive campaign behind them. And in February, a similar plurality, 47 percent, said they had.

“I think that candidate Trump promised that when he was president he would be breathtakingly presidential and thus far he’s maintained some of his distracting habits from the campaign,” says Steel, the former Boehner aide who worked on the campaign of one of Trump’s GOP primary competitors, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

The Republican staffers who responded to the April poll agree with Steel. More than half, 62 percent, said Trump’s temperament and approach to governing had hurt Republicans’ ability to move a conservative agenda, compared to 24 percent who said it had helped and 14 percent who said it had no effect.

Instances of Republican lawmakers openly criticizing their new president have been few, but they’re growing since Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey on May 9 and the subsequent revelation that Trump had given classified information, provided to the United States by Israel, to the Russian ambassador. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain called the news “deeply disturbing” and said he worried that it would impair foreign allies’ “willingness to share intelligence with us in the future.”

Public objections from Republicans could yet grow if Trump follows through on his pledge to formulate a tax code overhaul plan. Republican respondents to the Capitol Insiders Survey have said they expect it’ll be their bosses who write the legislation. In February, when CQ Roll Call last posed the question, 64 percent of them said Congress would lead on policy, compared to only 7 percent who said Trump would.

Democratic unity

One of the big policy questions entering 2017 was whether Schumer would be able to keep his caucus in line. In winning the presidential election, Trump rewrote the political map, taking some states that hadn’t gone Republican since the 1980s.

It created a quandary for 10 Democratic senators up for re-election next year in states that Trump won.

Senate Democratic aides expect Schumer will, on the whole, succeed. When the Capitol Insiders Survey asked about it in January, half of the Senate Democratic aides said Schumer would keep his caucus together. By April, that number had risen to 75 percent.

“It’s ironic that Mitch McConnell was criticized for saying out loud that turning President Obama into a one term president was his No. 1 political goal,” Geduldig says. “If that’s not Chuck Schumer’s No. 1 goal, I don’t know what is. Everyone is wearing each other’s shoes at the moment.”

The numbers, thus far, show Schumer succeeding in keeping his bloc of 48 votes together. Of the 10 Democrats from Trump states facing re-election next year, eight are actually voting with their fellow Democrats on partisan votes more often than they did in 2016.

They include Joe Manchin III, the West Virginian whose state went for Trump by 42 percentage points. He’s thus far voted with his side on 63.1 percent of party unity votes, up from barely more than half of such votes in 2016. Indiana’s Joe Donnelly is also proving far more loyal than expected. He’s voted with the Democrats 76 percent of the time so far in 2017, compared to 56.8 percent in 2016.

It’s the same story with Heidi Heitkamp, the North Dakota Democrat, who’s voting with her side at a 65 percent clip, up 4 points from her 2016 rate.

The two Trump-state Democrats to stray at a greater rate in 2017 aren’t doing so by much. Jon Tester has voted with his fellow Democrats 85.4 percent of the time, down from his 86.7 percent score in 2016. Florida’s Bill Nelson is at 89.3 percent, just under his 91.8 percent in 2016.

It’s a testament to the power of the anti-Trump anger in the Democratic base, which has protested, attended town hall meetings and jammed senators’ phone lines to tell lawmakers to stand up to the president. “The resistance people want resistance,” says Daly, the former Pelosi spokesman.

In February, the survey queried Democratic aides on whether they’d be willing to forgo deals they thought could help the country in order to protest Trump. A sizable minority, 41 percent, said they would, while 53 percent said they’d work with the president if they thought it would benefit the country. It was a notable split for a party that prides itself on making government work.

But thus far, no such deals have materialized.

Base stands by Trump

Trump’s firing of Comey this month was followed by blockbuster news reports a week later that Trump revealed classified information to the Russian ambassador and in February, had asked Comey to quash the FBI’s inquiry into the alleged Russia ties of his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

The reports have put pressure on Congress to investigate, all the more so since the Justice Department on May 17 named former FBI Director Robert Mueller special counsel to look into possible Russian interference in the 2016 election.

But a new poll from CQ Roll Call’s parent company, The Economist, and pollster YouGov, demonstrates why a serious congressional inquiry may not happen. The poll, taken May 13-16, doesn’t reflect public opinion on the most recent developments in the scandal, but captures the country’s mood in the aftermath of the Comey firing. It surveyed 1,500 U.S. adults and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percent.

The poll found deep divisions between Democrats and Republicans on the key questions related to Comey’s dismissal: Whether Trump should have fired him and whether Congress or a special prosecutor should investigate?

If Trump is to survive the scandal, he only need maintain the support of Republicans in Congress, who control both the House and Senate. And while the latest developments have prompted some GOP representatives and senators to criticize the president, there’s still little evidence that the voters who just handed Republicans control of the White House and Congress are too concerned.

Only a third of Republican respondents said they thought Congress should investigate, even as four congressional committees have already launched probes. And only a quarter saw cause for the appointment of a special counsel to insulate the inquiry from political interference.

The Comey firing had little effect on Republicans’ opinions on the Russia investigation because few Republicans think there’s much to it. Only 2 percent of GOP respondents to the poll said they definitely accepted the consensus view of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russians hacked the computers of Democratic operatives during the campaign in order to increase the chance that Trump would win the election. Another quarter said they thought that was probably true, but nearly 3 in 4 Republicans said it was either probably or definitely not.

The Republicans were more likely to believe Trump’s claim, which he has offered without evidence, that millions of illegal votes were cast for Clinton, denying him a popular majority. More than half of the Republican respondents, 56 percent, said that was probably or definitely true.

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