Last year, congressional Republicans had the leverage to ram through a huge tax cut, repeal the requirement to buy health-insurance coverage, and put a conservative jurist on the Supreme Court.
This year the tables have turned. Democrats, though still in the minority, have more leverage on spending and responses to the opioid epidemic, and maybe also on immigration and infrastructure and revisions to the Affordable Care Act.
Democrats have political tailwinds after winning big election victories in November, and Republicans lost all chance to forge alliances with Democrats by pushing through a partisan tax bill. Democratic voters would bolt if their leaders helped award Trump anything that looks like a victory, so achievements will have to be largely on their terms.
The White House always matters in any legislative agenda. The author of “The Art of the Deal” has shown that he’s in over his head when it comes to deal-making in Washington. Some important Republicans consider him unstable and ill-informed — a conclusion they were reaching long before last week’s uproar over a new book describing Trump as a political and personal misfit.
Lawmakers face pressure over the next week and a half to set spending levels or face a government shutdown, which remains unlikely even if the Jan. 19 deadline has to be postponed. The administration insists on higher military spending; Democrats say the price will be higher domestic outlays. (It’s become easier to have both since Republicans overcame their aversion to red ink when deficit hawks like Senator Bob Corker and the right-wing House Freedom Caucus members voted for the budget-busting tax cut last month.)
Democrats also insist that the funding measure has to be tied to an immigration deal to prevent the deportation of people who were brought to the U.S. as kids and have come to be known as Dreamers. Trump, playing to his anti-immigrant base, on Friday demanded $18 billion for his infamous wall along the Mexican border, a crackdown on immigrants who want to bring in family members, and a beefed-up internal deportation force.
Senator Jeff Flake, the Trump-skeptical Arizona Republican, still thinks a deal is possible if Trump is given a way to back down without losing face. For example, Democrats could agree to provide money for border security that Trump could falsely claim lays the groundwork for a wall.
Democrats can successfully insist on protection for Dreamers, but they won’t get something else that’s important to many of their voters: a pathway to citizenship for those children who’ve spent their lives in the U.S. Trade-offs are possible to resolve less fraught immigration controversies over certain visa programs and the status of temporary residents like Haitian earthquake victims. The odds of an eventual immigration deal appear little better than 50-50.
Later in the year, Democrats will probably take charge of a major initiative on the opioid crisis, a topic Trump talked about a lot and acted on little. On infrastructure, the White House probably will propose a big plan, primarily privately financed. That will be rejected by Democrats; any successful infrastructure initiative will be chiefly financed from public funds. The odds on this today are less than 50-50.
In Congress, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, after winning the tax cut welcomed by his political contributors and seating a Supreme Court justice much admired in conservative circles, will be open to agreement on almost any opioid or infrastructure deal. He’d even back an immigration compromise as long as Trump supported it to provide political cover for Republican candidates. McConnell’s main concern is the re-election of incumbent Republican Senators, and only one or two of them face a serious test in November.
House Speaker Paul Ryan faces tougher challenges with a more resistant, ideologically driven caucus. Ryan knows policy details but possesses minimal political skills.
He once had three priorities. The first was a tax overhaul, which he achieved. He also wanted foreign-trade pacts, but knows these can’t be sealed over the nationalist opposition of the Trump White House. The third is to reduce spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which he’s vowed to do this year even though McConnell and the White House have said it’s a non-starter. The odds that Ryan is serving his last term as speaker are probably 80-20.
The Trump factor will be omnipresent. Democrats say that if he fires special counsel Robert Mueller, or pardons targets of Mueller’s investigation of possible links between Trump loyalists and the Kremlin, it will freeze everything.
Republicans hope the problems Trump causes can be minimized. Robert Merry, a journalist, author of history books and editor of The American Conservative magazine, has an insightful article this month that captures the essence of Trump’s governing failures.
Trump, Merry writes, welded together an electoral coalition of voters who’d “lost faith in the judgment and leadership of the nation’s elites.” He tapped into an unconventional populist anger against Washington, Wall Street, immigration and foreign interventions.
But Merry writes that Trump lacks the sophistication, follow-through and temperament to turn this alliance into a governing coalition.
During the campaign, Trump assailed big banks, especially Goldman Sachs. Now, Merry writes:
After railing against Big Finance and Goldman Sachs, he loaded his own administration with Goldman executives past and present, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; National Economic Council head Gary Cohn; White House counselor Dina Habib Powell; and Securities and Exchange chairman Jay Clayton, a partner at Goldman’s longtime law firm and husband of a Goldman vice president.
Trump called Afghanistan a “complete waste.” Now he’s sending more forces there. He once was the most dovish Republican candidate on North Korea; as president he’s threatening nuclear war with Pyongyang.
“Trump lacks the strategic acumen and powers of concentration required to craft a coherent political strategy made up of intertwined initiatives and actions,” Merry concludes.
That’s the reality that hangs over Congress in 2018, regardless of which party tries to drive the legislative train. The only thing that’s certain is that Trump will never change.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at [email protected]