GOP Leaders Face the Consequences of Capitol Leadership Vacuum

White House moves to exploit deep-seated unpopularity of Congress that has thwarted Trump's agenda

Break out the paper bags, because D.C. “Swampublicans” are still hyperventilating over the deal President Trump struck with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. The deal extends funding of the government and suspends the debt limit until December while providing over $15 billion for Harvey and Irma victims. Oh, the betrayal!

The Republican leadership’s outrage sounds something like this: “We failed on Trump’s promise to repeal and replace Obamacare. We failed again on so-called ‘Skinny Repeal.’ We’ve fought him on the border wall. We’ve pretended the Russia-collusion narrative is real and supported placing a special prosecutor on him. And now, out of nowhere, he turns his back on us?”

No matter how they spin it, Trump’s deal with the minority party is a huge embarrassment. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were bypassed by a president from their own party.

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On paper, Republicans are the majority party in both houses and, as such, they should be the wielders of congressional power. In practice, there hardly appears to be any real Republican majority. The majority is a mirage, and every time Trump dips his hand in for a cool refreshing drink, he ends up with a mouth full of sand.

Trump continues to blame the Senate’s procedural filibuster for how Republicans can’t get anything done:

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“Republicans, sorry, but I’ve been hearing about Repeal & Replace for 7 years, didn’t happen! Even worse, the Senate Filibuster Rule will … never allow the Republicans to pass even great legislation. 8 Dems control—will rarely get 60 (vs. 51) votes. It is a Repub Death Wish!” Trump tweeted Friday.

But that’s a red herring. Republicans in Congress have engaged in plenty of obstruction without help from the Democrats.

Arizona Sen. John McCain’s melodramatic thumbs-down vote to the skinny repeal of Obamacare pretty much sums up the Republican majority in Congress. It’s a game of legislators trying to score points by giving the Democrats their way. So this time Trump cut out the middlemen (and women) and scored the points himself.

The filibuster is a non-issue if Republicans can’t even get to 50 votes in the Senate on big-ticket agenda items. If they had the party unity of the Democrats, 52 votes would carry them to legislative success on everything, but they don’t. Not even close.

McConnell could form a committee, stick Sherlock Holmes, The Hardy Boys, and Veronica Mars on it, and still not be able to find the ideological overlap between the conservative Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz Republicans and the might-as-well-be-Democrat McCain, Graham, Heller, Collins Republicans. The party factions can’t compromise with each other, which makes the term “Republican majority” often appear as oxymoronic as “Democratic socialism” or “progressive logic.”

So, why would the more-pragmatic-than-ideological Trump continue to lower his bucket into the dry Republican well when there’s so much to be gained by courting the other side? Here’s what Trump accomplished by cutting a deal with Schumer and Pelosi.

First, this deal puts Ryan and McConnell on notice. From the beginning, the two Republican leaders have been complicit in stalling and marginalizing Trump’s agenda. Since the Senate showed up George Washington in 1789 by refusing to advise and consent on a treaty while he waited, these two branches have fought each other for power. Popular presidents often win the struggle, while less popular presidents end up being railroaded by Congress.

With Trump’s approval rating in the 30s, McConnell and Ryan smelled blood in the water. However, even with below-average approval numbers, as popularity goes, Trump is the letter-jacket-wearing captain of the football team compared to them. A recent McLaughlin & Associates poll showed an overwhelming majority of Americans — 63 percent — favor upgrading #RemoveRyan and #DitchMitch from hashtags to reality.

In his first few months as president, Trump spent all of his political capital on a war with the media. If he intends to have any legislative victories, he has to rebuild that political capital by increasing his approval numbers. White House Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly clearly plans to replenish the president’s political capital, thus increasing executive influence over Congress.

After an excellent response to Hurricane Harvey, and showing a willingness to reach across the aisle, Trump’s approval rating is on the rise — up 7 percent according to Rasmussen Reports, 3 points according to Reuters and The Economist/YouGov, and 2 percent according to Gallup since Kelly took over. To independents, Trump now looks like the president who brought cooperation back to Washington.

If the Irma response is what it should be, those approval numbers will keep trending upward. The higher Trump’s approval rating goes, the more political pressure he’ll be able to apply to Ryan and McConnell.

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Second, Trump is needs to be able to bargain with Democrats if he is going to get something in exchange for permanent legal status for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act recipients, aka dreamers. Democrats boxed themselves into a corner with their hyperbolic overreaction to Trump’s kicking President Obama’s executive amnesty, known as DACA, to Congress. They pretended it was an act of cruelty that would result in mass deportation of dreamers.

It was called “an “act of cruelty” by the Los Angeles Times, “evil” in The Washington Post, and “unAmerican” by Marie Claire. After this mass garment rending, if Trump gives them the opportunity to vote DACA into actual law and save all the dreamers in exchange for something Republicans want, how will they refuse?

A plethora of Democratic fundraising emails echoed this apocalyptic nonsense. Now, how can they say, “We love the dreamers, but we don’t love them that much?” “Dreamers are great, but they aren’t border-wall great or tax-cut great?” Any unwillingness from the Democrats to negotiate on behalf of the dreamers would signal to Americans either that they blew the DACA action way out of proportion (which is, of course, the truth) or that they don’t care about the dreamers (which, let’s be real, is probably also true).

Hopefully, Trump working with the Democrats will serve as a wake-up call to all factions of the Republican Party — start governing or get out of his way.

Eddie Zipperer is an assistant professor of political science at Georgia Military College and a regular LifeZette contributor.

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