WASHINGTON – Donald Trump’s attacks on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell come at the worst possible time, if the president’s goal is actually to advance his agenda on health care, infrastructure and taxes that he’s goading his GOP ally to pass.
Congress, now on summer break, will return next month to confront a brutal workload that includes two absolute must-do items: funding the government to head off a shutdown, and raising the federal borrowing limit to avert a potentially catastrophic first-ever default on U.S. obligations.
Both will require bipartisan co-operation, something in short supply on Capitol Hill this year.
That’s in addition to Trump’s demand for a tax rewrite to lower rates, a public works bill, and renewed efforts to repeal the Obama-era health law. McConnell, R-Ky., tried but failed last month to replace the Affordable Care Act — an outcome that Trump called “a disgrace.”
So the president’s rhetoric this past week has widened divisions at a moment when his party should try to work together on shared goals. His agenda only can pass if McConnell navigates it through the Senate. The veteran lawmaker may not feel more motivated to do that with his president working against him.
“Virtually any substantial goals that the president intends to achieve, whether it’s tax reform or more infrastructure, requires the active assistance of the Senate majority leader,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for John Boehner when the Ohio Republican was House speaker.
McConnell’s allies say that Trump’s frustration over the failure on health care is shared by the majority leader. Campaign operatives on the political side say it’s crucial that the next item on the agenda — taxes — not collapse in a similar fashion. Otherwise, Republicans will have a tough time making the case to voters during next year’s that they should continue to control both chambers of Congress and the White House.
“Tax reform is a must-do issue in our view,” Steven Law, head of the McConnell-aligned super PAC Senate Leadership Fund, said Friday in an interview for C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program. “I think if we fail to get action on that, I think people will start to wonder why Republicans are in charge of everything and what they’re accomplishing.”
Yet instead of linking arms with McConnell on the issue and working Capitol Hill, which is what President George W. Bush did when he got his big tax cuts through in 2001, the White House may already be at cross-purposes with the majority leader.
The president’s team has raised expectations for fast action on taxes. White House legislative director Marc Short recently suggested a bill could be completed by the end of the year. That’s a tall order for Republicans who have yet to meet a single major legislative deadline. At the same time, Congress has made virtually no progress on infrastructure or the budget, and the unfinished work is piling up.
Unlike health care, the upcoming agenda — outside of taxes and Trump’s nominations — requires Democratic votes. That’s sure to be another sore point between Trump and McConnell because Trump wants the Senate to eliminate the filibuster. McConnell, along with most Senate veterans, are resolutely opposed.
McConnell dinged Trump this past week for “excessive expectations” about what can happen in Congress. That didn’t sit well with the president, who lashed out against McConnell.
Even as Senate Republicans rushed to the majority leader’s defence, McConnell’s allies tried to calm the waters. Some noted that McConnell, while expressing his displeasure with Trump’s tweeting habits, has nonetheless proceeded forward despite them.
“The most important thing Leader McConnell said this week is that this Congress will be judged in its totality, not in a snapshot, which is exactly right,” said Brian McGuire, McConnell’s former chief of staff. “He and the president share a common set of legislative goals, and there’s no reason whatsoever to believe those shared goals won’t continue to be a unifying force in the months and years ahead.”
A priority for Trump is U.S. taxpayer money for a wall along the Mexico border despite his repeated campaign promises that Mexico would finance it. McConnell may be hard-pressed to deliver as funds for the border wall are certain to face strong Democratic opposition and some Republican foes.
“We have announced publicly, ‘No wall. Never,'” said No. 2 Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois. “Don’t put that on the table. It’s just a nonstarter with our caucus.”
The administration is signalling that Trump is so determined to win money for the wall that it may be open to a budget deal that would increase defence spending and boost funds for domestic programs favoured by Democrats. Trump reluctantly relented on the wall this spring — only to turn to Twitter to threaten a shutdown if he didn’t get a better deal this fall.
But adding the contentious issue to a volatile mix on the September agenda could prove too risky.
AP Congressional Correspondent Erica Werner contributed to this report.