The Memo: Trump tries to bend Congress to his will

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President Trump sought to strong-arm Senate Republicans into passing ObamaCare repeal-and-replace legislation on Wednesday in an attempt to turn the weight of his office into impetus for action.

Trump made progress of a kind, appearing to at least force Senate Republicans to make another run at repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as ObamaCare.

{mosads}That legislation had appeared politically dead just one day before.

First, GOP Sens. Mike Lee (Utah) and Jerry Moran (Kan.) joined colleagues Susan Collins (Maine) and Rand Paul (Ky.) in opposing the legislation being pushed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). 

Then, several senators also came out against a “Plan B” that would have involved repealing the ACA first and coming up with a plan to replace it at a later date.

Trump himself had urged Republicans to take up repeal-and-delay legislation, but changed his tune during a lunch with senators at the White House on Wednesday, where he warned them against abandoning the original bill.

The president appeared to scold Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who sat beside him, saying the Nevadan “wants to remain a senator.” Heller had been among the Republicans holding out against the McConnell legislation.

Trump also called on the senators to cancel their August recess in an effort to get some kind of healthcare legislation across the finish line.

“We shouldn’t leave town until this is complete,” he said at the lunch. “We should hammer this out and get it done.” 

Trump also struck an ominous note for any GOP senator who might vote against a motion to proceed on the legislation, saying that doing so was tantamount to support for ObamaCare. 

Republicans have promised to repeal former President Obama’s signature domestic achievement since the law was passed seven years ago.

But the outlook for the current effort remains cloudy. There has been no immediate sign that the quartet of senators who expressed opposition to the McConnell legislation will shift their position, and it’s unlikely that they are the only holdouts. 

White House legislative affairs director Marc Short told reporters in the White House briefing room on Wednesday that “inaction is not an option.” He said there would be a meeting on Capitol Hill on Wednesday evening to try to win over recalcitrant Republican lawmakers.

CNN also reported that Trump loyalists Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie had been dispatched to add some extra muscle to the effort on Capitol Hill. Lewandowski was Trump’s first campaign manager. Bossie was deputy campaign manager in the final months of the presidential campaign.

Trump is desperate for a win on healthcare, having achieved no significant legislative achievement in his first six months in office despite the GOP holding majorities in both chambers of Congress.

The healthcare push has taken up enormous amounts of time and energy, burning through Trump’s political capital while delaying action on other issues such as tax reform and infrastructure investment.

When asked about their achievements, Republicans almost always emphasize Trump’s executive actions on issues from deregulation to immigration, which do not require congressional approval. They also highlight the successful confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, the one bright spot in terms of cooperation between the White House and the GOP Congress.

Republican strategist John Feehery, who is also a columnist for The Hill, suggested that Trump’s inherently unorthodox approach to politics — and lingering tensions between him and the GOP establishment — was partly to blame for the lack of larger progress.

Republicans find Trump personable on an individual basis, Feehery said, “but politically it is much more fraught — because he is unpredictable, he makes all kinds of off-color comments. He is not really a politician. And Republican donors don’t really like him.”

The upshot, the strategist added, was that GOP lawmakers “like it when they are in meetings with him. Outside of the meetings, they are confused.”

The dynamic between Trump and congressional Republicans is also complicated by his low approval ratings. Trump’s approval rating is just under 40 percent in the RealClearPolitics polling average, although he remains largely popular with the GOP base.

Trump is far from alone in having difficulty enacting his agenda. Obama got the ACA passed by a narrow margin after a tumultuous, yearlong process, and failed to enact cap-and-trade climate legislation. Former President George W. Bush’s bid to reform Social Security failed. Former President Clinton made his own run at healthcare reform, which went nowhere.

“I don’t think this looks all that unusual,” said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University. “Presidents often have trouble getting things, even with [majorities for] their own party.”

Reeher also pointed to a broader trend of polarization, which, he said, has made bipartisan progress on almost any big issue very challenging.

“The two parties are very close in number — it’s a very even split — and they are polarized,” Reeher said. “Those things tend to reinforce each other, make it harder to work across the aisle, which makes it harder to pass any big bill.”

Those historical precedents will be little comfort to the president, however — unless his final roll of the dice pays off.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags Dean Heller Donald Trump Jerry Moran Mike Lee Mitch McConnell Rand Paul Susan Collins

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