Congressional Republicans are in a state of political paralysis, saddled with a White House that doesn’t know how to win votes. But leadership is afraid of defiance because the base is still overwhelmingly behind President Donald Trump.
Trump is bewildered by the Senate’s inability to rally enough members around a proposal to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and on Tuesday he began blaming individual Republicans.
Republican lawmakers, in turn, are irked with Trump for his distracting tweets, changing his mind on policy and pushing them to take up the contentious issue of health care first among their many legislative priorities this year.
The Senate is still working on a health care deal — this time to just repeal the law better known as Obamacare — but chances looked dim as at least three Republicans announced their opposition to the bill.
“We’re disappointed. I am very disappointed,” Trump told reporters Tuesday. “I am disappointed because for so many years, I’ve been hearing repeal and replace. I’m sitting in the Oval Office, right next door, pen in hand, waiting to sign something.”
Republicans, who control both the White House and Capitol Hill for the first time in a decade, have yet to achieve a major legislative victory and now face the prospect of failing on their biggest promise to voters. A former Trump staffer who is in regular contact with the White House described the possibility of getting anything accomplished as “a wing and a prayer.”
Trump didn’t mention the senators who opposed the bill by name, but he did say that he would be working to elect more Republicans next year when nearly two dozen Democratic senators will be on the ballot.
“So the way I look at it is in ‘18, we’re going to have to get some more people elected,” Trump said. “We have to go out and get more people elected that are Republicans.”
At the White House, there were signs of a growing strain. Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders had a terse message to senators: Get on with it. “It’s time for Congress to do their job and do it now,” she said.
Vice President Mike Pence chided his former colleagues on the Hill. “Inaction is not an option. Congress needs to step up. Congress needs to do their job, and Congress needs to do their job now,” Pence said at the Retail Advocates Summit in Washington.
Trump is “frustrated” and “bewildered” with the legislative process, according to three former Trump aides who are in regular contact with the White House but didn’t want to speak publicly about the president. “The president is learning the reality of governing in Washington,” one said. “It doesn’t just happen by tweeting.”
On Capitol Hill, at least one senator turned criticism on congressional leadership. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., was sharply critical of the way Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has handled the health care bill, but he spared Trump.
Johnson, who wanted Medicaid trimmed, said he was upset by reports that McConnell had told moderate senators privately not to worry about Medicaid cuts because they likely would never happen.
“I found those comments very troubling,” he said. And Johnson faulted Senate leadership for failing to hold committee hearings and creating a paper trail of “information and analysis.”
“Bypassing that crucial step in solving the problem is what landed us in this sorry state of affairs,” he said.
Most Republican members of Congress have run on repeated vows to repeal Obamacare and Johnson said it was the Senate’s job to deliver, not Trump’s.
“This is in our court, it’s our responsibility,” Johnson said.
Still, Republicans say they now need to begin to prepare to expect passage of only minor tax reform and infrastructure proposals and perhaps not much else even as they realize their majority depends on showing they can govern.
“The biggest mistake they made is they didn’t go for realistic legislative goals, just big goals,” one of the former Trump aides said. Sanders declined repeatedly to say when she thought health care or tax reform would be accomplished.
Trump insisted Tuesday he was not angry with Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky for failing to secure the votes needed but a former Trump adviser who is in contact with the White House said the president now realizes that despite his reputation as a dealmaker that the majority leader can’t deliver. Trump will be forced to be much more hands-on in future legislative negotiations, the adviser said.
And his fellow senators sought to defend McConnell: “The majority leader is trying to keep all the frogs in the wheelbarrow, and it’s a tough job, but he’s doing a good job,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowksi, R-Alaska, whose decision not to support the bid to repeal and later replace the health care act likely doomed the measure.
Sanders downplayed any change in the president’s tactic. “The president has laid out the priorities of what he wants to see in health care reform and now its Congress’ job to legislate and we’re looking to them to work through that process,” she said.
When he came into office in January, Trump appeared to be the kind of president Congress wanted: He was eager to schmooze with lawmakers but didn’t plan to bother them with the details, just the big picture.
Trump has spent months having lunches and dinners with lawmakers, who are also invited to the White House regularly for bowling and after hours tours.
But even Republicans who have advised Trump say it was a mistake for Trump not to get more involved by traveling the nation to sell the proposal, as former presidents have done, and cutting deals with lawmakers.
Trump on Monday invited half-dozen senators to the White House for dinner to talk health care, but not the senators who were wavering.
As that dinner was wrapping up, Republican Sens. Mike Lee and Jerry Moran sent word that they would not vote to advance the health care bill, leading McConnell to abandon the effort to repeal and immediately replace Obamacare.
Moran’s office pushed back on reports that the senator only gave the White House a couple minutes notice about his decision. “It was a brief, positive conversation with the White House regarding the path forward,” a Moran spokesperson said.
Some Republicans held out hope for a smooth landing.
“We knew this would be a difficult process,” Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. said. “It was not much different than the process the Democrats went through to pass Obamacare. Similar complaints were levied then, it’s not ideal, but sometimes that’s a leadership call that has to be made.”
Lindsay Wise contributed.