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Opinion: Working Around Trump on Issues That Matter

Reaching for compromise, change seekers are tuning out the president

Sens. Charles E. Grassley and Richard J. Durbin sponsored a bipartisan bill that would reduce mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenders. (Bill Clark/Roll Call)
Sens. Charles E. Grassley and Richard J. Durbin sponsored a bipartisan bill that would reduce mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenders. (Bill Clark/Roll Call)

The kiss-and-make-up press conference with President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was one of the most awkward dates in the history of, well, dates, as my Roll Call colleague Walter Shapiro pointed out. They need each other, sure, but will tax cuts be the glue to hold intermittent and shaky truces together for any length of time?

Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rand Paul of Kentucky looked to stay on Trump’s good side over genial rounds of golf, but they’d better not relax. All it takes is a bit of criticism, and the president shows that the loyalty he demands goes only one way. They need not reach all the way back to the personal insults of last year’s GOP primary race for proof.

Though John McCain’s support of a budget bill may smooth a path for tax reform, it probably won’t make Trump forget the Arizona senator’s swipe at “half-baked, spurious nationalism” this week as he was awarded the Liberty Medal by the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia (an award Trump probably won’t have to write a speech for anytime soon) or his own un-presidential presidential promise to “fight back” and “it won’t be pretty.”

Beyond the photo ops and declarations of comity, however, some lawmakers may be trying to go their own way. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray announced their proposal for a bipartisan deal to provide insurers funds to stabilize, for now, subsidies provided by the Affordable Care Act. The alternative, said Alexander, would be “chaos.” The Tennessee Republican and the Washington Democrat did not wait for Trump’s lukewarm approval, which — when it eventually came — alluded to some temporary solution, though not this particular bill, while renewing promises to destroy the ACA.

On another front, Sens. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat from West Virginia, and Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, are two lawmakers crossing partisan lines to confront the opioid crisis that has devastated their states and others without regard for red or blue political labels. Manchin, despite Trump having handily won his state in 2016, was not shy about objecting to the president’s drug czar pick, Republican Rep. Tom Marino, who withdrew himself from consideration after The Washington Post and “60 Minutes” reported how a bill he sponsored, which later became law, made it harder for the Drug Enforcement Administration to go after opioid manufacturers who make suspicious sales.

On the sideline

Trump is increasingly being left out of the conversation. And when he intervenes, it sometimes has the opposite of its intended effect.

When the president became a referee in the dispute between NFL owners and players protesting racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem before the game, it brought the two sides together on an issue that had fallen off the radar. As Vice President Mike Pence staged a walkout and Trump accused players of being disrespectful or worse and team owners of being afraid of their players, the National Football League was throwing its support behind a bipartisan bill that takes another run at criminal justice reform. The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley and Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin, would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders and eliminate strict three-strike rules.

Criminal justice reform used to be one of the few issues on which Democrats and Republicans could come together, in a meeting of the minds uniting social justice advocates and libertarians. But similar bipartisan legislation has been resisted by McConnell and former Alabama senator and current Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is enacting Trump administration policies that fulfill a base preference to go in the other direction and get tougher on crime, no matter the proven disparities in how laws are administered, infractions prosecuted and punishment doled out.

Still, it’s significant that Sessions, who himself falls in and out of favor with his boss, faced tough questions in his appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. The same day, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell — perhaps looking for a compromise that would please fans, players and the bottom line — strongly encouraged rather than ordered players to stand for the anthem.

Cities out front

As it gets easier to look for solutions that don’t come from the very top, it’s not just the NFL moving away from Trump’s hard line. Cities in search of innovative and practical solutions are on occasion saying “no, thanks.” This summer, after Trump reversed an Obama-era order and began offering local police departments certain kinds of surplus military gear, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg department in North Carolina was one that said it did not need the gear to do the job.

In a forum this week sponsored by The Atlantic magazine, the city’s police chief appeared along with activists, judges, public defenders and hundreds of citizens who want to move forward to inclusion and understanding on issues of race and justice, though there is no easy answer and relationships remain frayed.

The series of conversations, with questions from the community, covered as many topics as you get to in one morning, including how history can influence who benefits and who gets left behind in an economically growing region, how to fix a bail system that punishes the poor while letting dangerous people who have money out on the streets, and how transparency from top to bottom is not a solution but a start.

As activist Robert Dawkins of SAFE Coalition NC reminded the audience to knowing nods, the city has a reputation for more talk than progress. Yet turmoil might push the city to figure out next steps. In one instance, a $2 million grant awarded this month from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to Mecklenburg County’s Department of Criminal Justice Services builds on efforts in place to reform the criminal justice system and reduce the county’s jail population safely.

The mood at the forum was respectful disagreement, a lesson that Washington may be learning.

Has gridlock in Washington actually moved not only lawmakers on the national, state and local level but also citizens to look elsewhere, even within, for leadership as they struggle to solve tough problems in which the White House shows only glancing interest?

Might a president’s inability to sustain lasting and productive relationships with other leaders be the thing that gets Americans talking to one another before it tears us apart?

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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