Can this marriage of convenience be saved?
Will the first unified Republican government in a decade hold together in its current state of snarky detente, or will the majorities in Congress and President Donald Trump launch into a full-blown separation with the potential for policymaking divorce?
That’s the central question now confronting, if not preoccupying, the political and lobbying communities of Washington — and creeping into the country’s collective conscience as well.
This month provides a big window for the answer, with the decision probably emerging passively instead of with declarations of either persevering collaborative affection or door-slamming disdain.
If the congressional GOP and the president can get along well enough to accomplish three tasks — all of which were virtually automatic for many years, but have now become fraught tests of governing competence — their fragile union may survive long enough to provide some hope for major tax legislation and other conservative aspirations.
The obligatory tasks are to keep the government solvent, as well as operating without interruption, beyond the end of September — and in the meantime, deliver an initial infusion of cash to begin the literal bailout of sodden southeastern Texas.
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If any one of those jobs doesn’t get done, the consequences will be as grim for the country as the mutual recriminations between Trump and Hill Republicans will be clamorous.
The aftermath would likely lock in place, perhaps through the midterm elections, the sort of legislative wasteland that’s almost unheard of in times when one political party controls both the Capitol and the White House. And that’s precisely the sort of gridlock despised by the electorate, including so many of the Trump voters that both the president and the GOP Congress are counting on for continued fervent support.
The lawmakers will never automatically and unanimously bend to his will, and the president shows no signs of changing his ways of demeaning his ostensible allies and then changing the subject from their shared priorities.
And yet they are stuck with each other, worried that a more open rift would drive away their political base in the midterm campaign. (To tease the marriage metaphor a bit more, those voters may be likened to children who give both parents the cold shoulder for a long while after a messy split.)
On a mission
Having lived physically apart for a month — but with lawmakers still within social media earshot of Trump’s steady diet of anti-Congress brickbats — the House and Senate return from their summer recesses Tuesday.
Fall White House Forecast
The first move toward making sure all three of their “must do” missions are accomplished comes Wednesday, in an Oval office summit to which Trump has summoned the top four congressional leaders, each of whom has been subject to various degrees of his verbal abuse this summer: Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and their Democratic counterparts, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer.
Before taking substance, Ryan especially may want to know what the president meant by chiding GOP leaders for not raising the debt ceiling sooner — “Could have been so easy — now a mess!” — while McConnell may want to know if Trump is ready to walk back any of the four Twitter derisions aimed at the Senate majority leader. (“After hearing Repeal & Replace for 7 years, he failed! That should NEVER have happened!” got tweeted seemingly out of nowhere Aug. 24, for example.)
The only problem I have with Mitch McConnell is that, after hearing Repeal & Replace for 7 years, he failed!That should NEVER have happened!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 24, 2017
After that meeting, the House and Senate are scheduled to both be in session for just 11 nightfalls before the finish for fiscal 2017. Final votes on legislation to permit federal spending after the start of fiscal 2018, and avoid a partial government shutdown, as well as to increase the limit on federal borrowing, and avoid a government default, must take place by the morning of Sept. 29 in order to accommodate the 30 lawmakers who are Jewish and preparing for Yom Kippur beginning that evening.
The Sept. 30 deadline for agreeing to continue appropriations remains the same every year, of course, and the Sept. 29 deadline for raising the debt ceiling has been firm for more than a month. But the predictability of those time limits has been more than offset in August by a series of much less predictable events that will be competing for official Washington’s attention all month and well beyond.
Each has the potential to cause more crisis-level tension between the congressional majorities (or at least their leaders) and the president, further testing the limits of an always-uneasy marriage arranged for them only a year ago by Republican primary voters — then solemnized by perhaps the greatest upset in American electoral history.
The increasingly provocative missile testing program of nuclear-capable North Korea shows no signs of abating. And while Republicans are solidly with Trump in vowing to confront anything resembling aggression toward the United Sates, his bellicose and threatening tone makes many of them as anxious as anything about his presidential temperament.
The bloody “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month, where the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and other white nationalist groups skirmished violently with counter-protesters, surfaced anew the deep and smoldering racial tensions that could flare up again at almost any time. But the president’s reactions, several times suggesting moral equivalency between the racist hate groups and those who confront them, prompted more congressional Republicans than at any other time in his presidency to disassociate themselves from Trump’s views.
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has begun presenting evidence to a federal grand jury, and the witnesses he’s called suggest his investigation is stretching beyond contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign and deeply into the finances and business deals of the president’s family. The pace of the inquiry, and Trump’s combative talk about the breadth of his pardon powers, has GOP lawmakers wondering how much longer they’ll be able to mark time before the president is completely consumed by his legal situation and voters start insisting that lawmakers take sides.
And only last week, the Hill’s September “must pass” roster went from two big items to three because Hurricane Harvey, after running roughshod through the environs around Corpus Christi, Texas, produced record rainfall and epic flooding across Houston and the rest of the nation’s fifth-largest metropolitan area before lurching into western Louisiana.
The region is counting on billions in federal help with immediate recovery efforts, then many billions more in aid for a rebuilding that will take years. But after the last comparable natural disaster, Superstorm Sandy five years ago, it took 11 weeks for the first penny to be appropriated because congressional Republicans, then as now, were beset by infighting over the difference between benevolence and budgetary irresponsibility.
Unlike back then, however, the Harvey debate looks to be complicated by an unprecedented development in the fiscal wars — a president, not a faction on the Hill, vowing a partial government shutdown unless a demand gets met even though it’s a nonstarter with the opposing side. In this case, Trump is threatening to reject next year’s spending blueprint unless it provides construction funds for the wall he’s long promised on the southern border. Democrats view the project as unjustified and are united against funding it — and a decent number of GOP budget hawks agree with them, all the while wondering whatever happened to the president’s promise to make Mexico foot the bill.
From the start, the union of Trump and congressional Republicans has, at its best, been highly awkward and transparently transactional — much different than any other bond, at least in modern times, between a president and a lawmaking majority of his own party.
As someone lacking even one day’s experience in public life before inauguration, Trump came into the relationship like many first-time newlyweds — without really understanding either the virtues or the limitations of his new “work spouse,” and without any experience at melding his own operating style and compromising his own priorities with people expecting a co-equal partnership.
Instead, he has acted, from the start, as though he’ll eventually stabilize things entirely through the exercise of his dominating personality.
The senior GOP lawmakers, for their part, had been to the altar with several previous presidents and so had their eyes wide open to the perils of their new liaison with such an unfamiliar and combustible helpmate — someone elected after incessantly lambasting the “GOP establishment” (a code word for those very lawmakers) and vowing to “drain the swamp” (meaning the lobbying and fundraising world essential to their work). The newcomers — two-thirds of the Republicans in the 115th Congress arrived after Barack Obama was elected president — were thrilled to have any Republican, even an inconsistently conservative one, to work intimately with.
Almost all the Hill’s Republicans vowed to make the most of the rushed engagement, confident they could either manage, work around or ignore Trump’s outre behaviors while counting on him to act as utilitarian helpmate in lowering taxes, boosting the military, shrinking domestic spending, reducing the reach of federal regulators, and steering the federal courts hard to the right.
Both Trump and the GOP Congress, in other words, have viewed the past seven months as the start of a marriage of mutual convenience — with each side expecting the other will accept the role of subservient spouse.
It’s not working out that way, and the time for testing the dynamic seems to be running short in the face of this fall’s legislative obligations and potential crises.
“I don’t want to be disappointed by Congress. Do you understand me?” Trump said, pointing to a handful of GOP members attending a campaign-style rally on taxes in Missouri last week. “I think Congress is going to make a comeback. I hope so. I’ll tell you what, the United States is counting on it.”
Those same members are presumably, if silently, saying the same thing about Trump.