Republicans have controlled Washington for seven months. They have virtually nothing to show for it.
Returning home this week to face voters for the first time since the party failed to get an Obamacare repeal through a Senate where it had a majority, lawmakers are now struggling for a message that they can spin as a win.
“No party can remain in power by lying to the American people,” said Sen. Ted Cruz before leaving the Capitol for a trip home to Texas.
“They're going to have to answer hard questions of people who look them in the eyes and say, 'Why did you lie to me?’" Cruz said.
Republicans this year control both the White House and Congress for the first time in 10 years. And historically, a new president uses his mandate to get a major initiative passed by the August recess.
Not this year. Instead, the paucity of political victories spells danger ahead of the 2018 and 2020 elections for the party that promised over and over to repeal Obamacare, get the government out of people’s lives and dramatically cut spending and taxes.
The collapse of the GOP’s health care effort, scuttled when three Republicans joined 46 Democrats and two independents to defeat the latest version, was the most glaring, embarrassing example of how the party could get nothing big done.
“It’s an epic fail for the Republican Congress,” said Tim Phillips, president of the conservative Americans for Prosperity.
The inability to deliver on a promise after seven years of campaign pledges to rid the nation of Obamacare, he said, “is the height of cynicism and the reason so many Americans distrust and dislike politicians.”
Republicans now face a huge political dilemma. They have to choose between answering the siren call from the base and returning to the heavy if not impossible lift of remaking the nation’s health care system – or working with party moderates and Democrats on shoring up insurance markets in danger of cratering in some states.
Collaborating with the political enemy will be a tough sell to the GOP’s conservative base. But working with only conservatives will probably mean into another intractable health care war.
Instead, many conservatives want to look ahead to overhauling the tax code, and fast.
Phillips, who will host an event Monday in Washington to discuss tax reform with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the White House Director of Legislative Affairs, said conservative groups expect the party to make Obamacare repeal a “long term effort.”
Failure to deliver at this point, he said, “raises the stakes even higher on tax reform. It makes it a must do.”
Trouble is, rewriting the country’s tax code is a complex process that historically has taken years, and probably can’t be done without Democrats.
And it will be up against a conservative base that’s not going to stop demanding Obamacare repeal. Iowa Republican Party chairman Jeff Kaufmann said he that while expects tax reform to become the party priority, it must return to health care. Iowa historically hosts the nation’s first presidential caucus.
“The people are not going to let this go,” Kaufmann said. “You saw the anger that led to the election of Donald Trump. They’ve not done a thing to make that anger subside. Indeed, they’ve thrown gas on the fire.”
The Tea Party movement, which was largely responsible for Republicans winning control of the House in 2010, feels the same way. Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin insisted the health care debacle was “failure only for this week” and urged Senate leadership to take a harder stance against the holdouts.
“It is time to 'crush' the moderates and 'punch them in the nose,’” she said.
But the three senators who cast “no” votes early Friday morning are highly unlikely to respond to threats: Maine Sen. Susan Collins is popular in her state and said to be interested in running for governor; Lisa Murkowski of Alaska ran as a write-in candidate and against the Republican establishment in 2010 and won and Arizona Sen. John McCain cherishes his status as a party maverick.
There’s simply no easy path for Republicans. The party has a 240 to 194 seat bulge in the House, a majority analysts say is unlikely to be in jeopardy next year.
The GOP has a 52 to 48 advantage in the Senate, and 23 of the 34 seats up in 2018 are held by Democrats. Two others up for reelection are independents who caucus with the Democrats.
Ten of the Democrats are in states Trump won last year, and Republicans see at least an outside chance of reaching 60 seats. That’s a magic Senate number, because it usually takes 60 to cut off debate, easing the path for party initiatives.
Trouble is, the public sees a Republican party in disarray, though, one unable to fulfill even its most eagerly desired promises. And it sees a White House that appears disorganized and unable to use its influence.
“The inter-White House warfare is in fact an impediment to doing stuff,”said Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “Not only do you have the normal impediments to legislative change, but you’ve got additional impediments created in the White House that, frankly, hamper the president’s ability to lead.”
The confusion over where Republicans stand was evident in the wake of the health care collapse. President Donald Trump, suggested Republicans should “let Obamacare implode” to force Democrats to negotiate. But moderate Republicans suggested doing so would crush GOP candidates next year.
“The hands on the steering wheel now are Republican hands and collapse would cost them,” said Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Republican campaign operative in Florida. “They’re between a rock and a hard place. If they do what’s right it could cost with the base, if they do nothing it will cost them in the general.”