After a summer of white supremacy protests in Charlottesville and a relentless investigation into possible Russian ties to the Trump campaign, Republicans returned to Washington ready not to confront the president, but eager to please his supporters and find ways to deliver the legislation he seeks.
Republican after Republican Tuesday said there’s too much work to do and too little time to let President Donald Trump’s controversial response to last month’s deadly clash in Charlottesville or Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe alter the way they deal with the White House.
"There are people in Washington who just want to see the president fail, who won't work with him at all, no matter what he does or what he proposes. And that's a shame, because we're down here to govern, we're not supposed to be down here as opposition,” said Rep. Dan Donovan, R-N.Y.
Republicans also had reason to praise Trump, thanks to Hurricane Harvey. He’s visited Texas to console and reassure residents of hurricane-ravaged areas that he’s doing all he can to help.
In an interview days after the Charlottesville confrontation, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the Senate's only black Republican, said Trump's "moral authority" was "complicated" by his inability to unequivocally call out white supremacists.
Tuesday. he was more upbeat. "What we’ve seen recently of the president has been activities and actions that are consistent with being presidential," Scott said. "We are thankful that the president has spent a lot of time in Texas and, ultimately, I think his response has been a very positive and constructive response to the current crisis." Trump has visited areas of Texas ravaged by Hurricane Harvey.
Even some of Trump’s harshest GOP critics of his response to Charlottesville said it’s time to move on from the president’s assessment that "both sides" were responsible for the August 12 violence, where a woman protesting the white supremacy marchers was killed.
"He’s still president," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R- S.C. "I disagree with the way he handled Charlottesville, and now I’ve got to find a way to fix the Dream Act, fund the government, deal with North Korea."
Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee, echoed Graham’s sentiment. “With everything going on, the fast pace with tax reform, DACA, the hurricanes…I don’t know that it (Charlottesville) is the lead story,” Walker said.
Congress this month will tackle a host of tough issues. It faces a deadline of Sept. 30 pass a budget for the next fiscal year, which begins the next day. The government is about to reach its debt limit. Trump is eager for lawmakers to consider broad changes in tax and immigration laws.
A majority of Americans believe the president mishandled Charlottesville. A CBS News poll last month found that 55 percent of Americans disapproved of his response – but 67 percent of Republicans approved of the way the president reacted.
Overall, Trump’s job approval rating fell to its lowest point yet, 35 percent, in the Gallup Poll last week, though 78 percent of Republicans said they approve of the job he’s doing.
That explains why many incumbent Capitol Hill Republicans don’t want to be seen among GOP voters as overly critical of Trump, said David Woodard, a South Carolina Republican political consultant.
"They might find themselves in some primaries," said Woodard, whose clients have included Graham and South Carolina Republican Reps. Trey Gowdy and Jeff Duncan. "He’s a potent president. He still has a lot of pull."
So instead of confrontation, congressional Republicans are content to keep Trump "at arm’s length," Woodard said.
"What I’ve heard people say down here – ‘When the president says something my constituents agree with, I’ll be right there to help him any way I can,’" Woodard said. "‘But when he says something that I don’t, I’m not afraid to criticize him.’ They say that frequently, but I don’t hear them criticizing him all that much."
Some Republicans were more circumspect. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said it was premature to assess the impact of Trump’s Charlottesville response on his relationship with fellow Republicans.
“In part because that’s just the nature of politics and in part because he’s broken every piece of conventional wisdom that’s out there," Sanford said.