How Trump and the GOP Congress Failed in Just Six Months

I hate to do this but Trumpcare failed once before, in March, and I wrote its autopsy back then. In two long pieces (Trump Built His Own Prison and How a Tricky Tactic by Congressional Republicans Destroyed Trump’s Agenda), I explained why it was a major strategic error for the Trump administration to sign off on an unprecedented parliamentary gambit to avoid Democratic filibusters. I explained why it was doomed from the beginning and to the best of my ability what the fallout would be from the failure. I just went back and read them both, and I really wouldn’t add or amend anything. It’s playing out exactly as I described with the only difference being that the GOP couldn’t face the music back in March and so wasted April, May, June, and most of July trying to revive a corpse. I’d like to lay it all out for you again, but why reinvent the wheel when my pieces from March will serve the purpose?

Instead, I’ll just give a brief recap. The Republicans decided that they could take advantage of the fact that they never passed a budget last year to pass two budgets this year. This would allow them to use the first to repeal Obamacare (quickly, they hoped) and the second to pass tax reform. There were mind-numbing parliamentary reasons for creating two separate bills that you can read about in the “Tricky Tactic” piece, but the primary rationale was that it would allow the Republicans to bypass the Democrats’ filibuster and pass through both major pieces of legislation on strictly party line votes. They wouldn’t need hearings or expert witnesses or to have a traditional committee markup of the legislation. And, because of this, they wouldn’t get but also would not need any Democratic input, buy-in, or votes.

One obvious flaw in this plan is that it created an adversarial environment where the Democrats would not and could not work constructively with the Republicans, and in which the Republicans erroneously thought that they could get results without help. Even if the plan had worked for its intended purposes, there’s a lot more to politics than health care and tax reform, and the Trump administration would need a decent working relationship with at least some Democratic lawmakers (eight senators, for example, to clear a filibuster) to pass anything that wasn’t included in their two budget reconciliation bills. Their plan didn’t take this into account, so they salted the earth for any prospect of later bipartisan cooperation.

This wasn’t the only way that Trump salted the earth. He came out of the box with a toxic travel ban, for example, and he filled his cabinet with people who are more interested in dismantling their departments than running them. All of this contributed to an environment where Trump would be hamstrung by his inability to pass legislation through Congress. But the most damaging thing, in my opinion, was the adoption of this dual budget reconciliation plan because it gave the Republicans the idea that they were operating in a political environment that didn’t actually exist. It gave them permission to act with no thought for the future.

Of course, Trump did not understand what he was signing off on when the Republican leaders pitched him this convoluted plan filled with parliamentary jujitsu. But I was able to say in the third week of March, when Trump had just reached the sixty day mark of his presidency, that “he’s barely been in office for two months and he’s already cut off every possibility for success.”

I’d like to say that Trump was taken for a ride but he did have his thumb out and his drivers seem to have thought they’d built a functional vehicle. It was clear to me that they hadn’t, but this fact is just now occurring to the Republican leadership in Congress. They’ve discovered that they can’t pass health care reform even under a process that cuts the Democrats out completely, which also means that they can’t pass tax reform that way, either.

It’s also a blow to McConnell’s reputation as a master legislator and raises doubts in the White House about what Senate Republicans can actually deliver for President Donald Trump. McConnell, like Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), finds himself caught between the factions in his own party. And like Ryan, McConnell hasn’t demonstrated that he knows how to resolve the dispute.

“This is an impossible hand,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), McConnell’s closest ally, of the party’s fragile majority.

Why was it so easy for me to predict that they had dealt themselves an impossible hand?

For one, it was because I carefully observed the divisions within the Republican Party that led to the electoral defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and the forced retirement of Speaker John Boehner. They had tried without success to unify their caucus around compromise plans for governing with the Obama administration, and they had been forced to go to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for help so many times that they eventually invited a revolt from their own far-right voters and members. You can see that Speaker Paul Ryan is having the same problem today as he has failed to unite his caucus around his plan for passing this year’s appropriations bills.

House GOP leaders are resorting to Plan B on their spending strategy after falling woefully short of the support needed to pass a massive government funding package without Democratic votes.

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy announced Tuesday night that the House will vote next week on a measure that includes just four of the 12 bills needed to fund the federal government. That decision comes after GOP leaders failed to get enough Republican support to pass the full dozen without the help of their minority-party counterparts.

The so-called “minibus” or “security-bus” will include measures that would fund the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as the Legislative Branch, the Energy Department and water projects.

After launching a whipping operation Monday night to gauge interest in voting on the full spate of spending bills, GOP leaders walked away with a tally of dozens of Republican lawmakers who said they couldn’t commit — as well as several hard “no’s” — to voting for the partisan bundle of 12 bills, according to Republican lawmakers and aides.

The survey underscored GOP leadership’s ongoing difficulty in appeasing the party’s most fiscally conservative wing while still holding onto support from moderates, and serves as a reminder that ideological differences within the House Republican conference are likely to force the majority to continue making deals with Democrats to keep the government funded.

This is happening in the House where no tricky tactics are required to avoid Democratic filibusters and the GOP has a forty-six seat advantage instead of the narrow two-seat advantage they enjoy in the Senate. It’s unclear to me why the Republican leadership in Congress ever thought they could corral their own caucuses to vote in lockstep for their agenda, especially with a president as unorthodox as Donald Trump at the helm.

I’ve written for years that the Republican Party can’t fund the government or pay our debts on time if they need to rely on only their own votes, and nothing about that fact changed (or changed enough) just because a Republican president replaced a Democratic one.

What did change with the turnover in the Oval Office, though, was the Democrats’ incentives to provide assistance to the Republican leadership when their own members balk at governing. By deliberately choosing a strategy that cut the Democrats out, alienated and insulted them, and that never once contemplated a Day After when they’d need their help, the Trump administration and the congressional leadership paved their way into a dead end.

What they’re doing now is trying to come up with any way they can think of to avoid the day of reckoning when they’ll have to come to the Democrats and ask for their votes on anything. And, I’ll give them credit. They can be very creative in coming up with ways I could not anticipate to postpone or avoid this reckoning.

For complicated reasons I explained in my “Tricky Tactic” piece, the Republicans needed cost savings from Obamacare repeal to make their tax reform effort work, especially if they want it to be permanent and not sunset like Bush’s tax cuts. Now that they know that these cost savings won’t be there, they’re fumbling around for another solution. This piece is long enough already, so I won’t try to explain it here. Just know that it won’t work because they can’t agree to it internally. You can read about it here. It’s all an effort to avoid the consequences of their decisions, which I laid out in a June 29th piece: And Now the Trump Presidency Begins to Fail for Real. That, too, needs no amendment.

This has all been predictable, it’s true, but it could not go on forever. They will have to raise the debt ceiling. They will have to pass appropriations or the government will need to be funded perpetually on Obama’s baseline numbers or the government will simply shut down. They need to reauthorize some major programs. Eventually, they’ll want to try to tackle Trump’s infrastructure plans. They can do none of these things without Democratic help because they can’t agree about them among themselves.

You can think of Obamacare repeal like a tractor-trailer that has jackknifed on the interstate. Everything else will pile up now, and none of it will pass through because there was no backup plan.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.