As President Trump threatens nuclear war with North Korea and tries to figure out how he feels about neo-Nazis — moments ago, he finally condemned white supremacist groups by name — Republicans are facing an extraordinary period on Capitol Hill, one which will require work, skill, care and luck to navigate successfully.
Even in the best of circumstances, it would be an incredibly difficult challenge. But it will be made even harder by the fact that the person who should be their greatest asset — the president — is in fact their greatest impediment.
Here’s a quick list of what Republicans are facing over the next six weeks:
- If Congress doesn’t pass a budget bill by the end of September, the government will shut down.
- If Congress doesn’t pass an increase in the debt ceiling by the end of September, the United States will default on its debts, potentially triggering a global financial crisis.
- The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which insures about 9 million children, needs to be reauthorized by the end of September.
- The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) needs to be reauthorized by the end of September.
- Republicans want to pass sweeping tax reform as soon as possible.
- The White House still wants to pass an infrastructure bill.
- Many Republicans in Congress still want to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and conservatives in the House are attempting to force a vote on full repeal, reigniting the debate that was so disastrous for them.
How is President Trump confronting this set of challenges? As Politico reports:
He has told others he will distance himself from any failures, even as some of his aides push him to cultivate stronger relationships on Capitol Hill.
That’s just the beginning. The White House doesn’t yet have a plan for all this. His advisers hope to come up with one this week, but while they do, the president is tweeting insults at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
If your team’s football coach spent the days before the Super Bowl publicly saying that the offensive coordinator sucks at his job, it probably wouldn’t inspire too much confidence about how the game will go. And don’t look for Trump to fashion a strategy himself, particularly when he’s still thinking about a fight they already lost. More from Politico:
Trump wants health care done quickly, even as many in the Senate would like to move on. The president, who is combative, doesn’t like to be seen compromising — and often focuses on an issue only after he has lost and received the public sting. “He thinks if we don’t get health care done, we’re losers,” said one adviser who speaks with him often.
Meanwhile, internal disagreements abound, about both which issues should get the highest priority and which approach to take for each issue. There are disagreements within the administration, disagreements among Republicans in Congress, and disagreements between Congress and the White House.
So there are a dozen different ways things could go disastrously wrong. A government shutdown is a real possibility, as is a default on the debt — and there’s no way to blame either one on Democrats. You couldn’t devise a more vivid demonstration of Republican incompetence and failure than government offices and national parks shutting their doors — not because of a partisan showdown but because the GOP can’t get its act together to keep the lights on.
If programs such as CHIP aren’t reauthorized, the effects will be rapid and dramatic, accompanied by a wave of news coverage about kids losing their insurance. If the Freedom Caucus succeeds in forcing another ACA vote, it will only reignite the debate on health care that was so damaging to Republicans just a few weeks ago. And if they manage to slap together a tax bill in short order, it will inevitably be a huge giveaway to corporations and the wealthy, which Democrats will gleefully pummel them for.
Through it all, President Trump will almost certainly be making things worse at every turn. Matters such as the budget and the debt ceiling need to be handled carefully — the risks are great, and you often need members to put aside their narrow interests to focus on the national interest, which isn’t always easy.
Do you think Trump will have the subtlety to calm the rhetoric and keep his party in line? Or will he turn minor disagreements into needlessly personal public spats? Does anyone think that the man who suggests letting “Obamacare implode” and ratchets up conflicts with foreign dictators will appreciate the gravity of these issues and work to keep everyone calm and focused?
In the end, delaying things as long as possible will probably wind up being the best available option for the White House and Congress. Instead of agreeing on a new budget, they can pass a continuing resolution that keeps spending at current levels for a while (say 90 days), giving them more time to work on it. They can set aside their goal of passing tax reform immediately and take their time with it. They can put off infrastructure until next year.
But delay comes with its own risks. Before you know it, it will be 2018 and every member of Congress will be focused intently on their own reelection. For some of them, that will mean showing their constituents they have the independence to buck the White House or the GOP leadership.
But most of all, there’s no realistic path in the short term for the kind of “wins” the president is so desperate for. Congress may keep the government open and not hurtle into a default, but that isn’t exactly the kind of thing you can trumpet as a victory for the public that will make everyone’s life better.
Bottom line: For the next few months, a maintenance of the status quo is the best-case scenario for Republicans.
That will make President Trump extremely frustrated. And you know how he gets when he’s frustrated.