Republicans wonder: Can we govern?

Greg Nash

Republicans are questioning their ability to govern following seven months of constant turmoil capped by the dramatic failure in the Senate to advance ObamaCare repeal.

GOP lawmakers already face serious divisions over the two biggest items left on the agenda: raising the debt ceiling and reforming the tax code.

The problems underscore how moving on from healthcare won’t necessarily solve the GOP’s problems.

“What we have to be able to do is demonstrate that we’re capable of doing hard things,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.).

“Healthcare reform is hard. Tax reform is hard. We’ve got to pivot now to tax reform and get an outcome.”

The party has no easy way out on the debt-ceiling dilemma. With Republicans in charge of Congress and the White House, the party will get the full blame if it fails to hike the borrowing limit and financial problems ensue.

On tax reform, veteran party voices such as former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) already are saying it would be smarter to lower ambitions and settle for a simpler package of tax cuts.

Emerging from a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Republican senators on Tuesday morning, Gingrich said the best way to demonstrate an ability to govern is “to pass something that matters.”

“Tax cuts are the most important single thing they’re going to do this year, and they need to get them done by Thanksgiving so they can affect the economy by 2018,” he told The Hill.

The ObamaCare repeal failure was a jarring experience for many Republican lawmakers who have campaigned on the issue since 2010.

“I have all kinds of concerns. I’m not going to defend this process or this place. We’ve got to keep working at it,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who was critical throughout the healthcare debate of what he viewed as a haphazard process.

“Coming from the business world, having solved many problems, there’s a process you follow. That seems to be quite foreign to Washington, D.C.,” he added. “It’s a more political process as opposed to a problem-solving process.”

In public, Republican lawmakers for the most part have sought to avoid blaming the steady stream of White House distractions and controversies for their legislative record.

Privately, staff and members are more forthcoming.

“It’s August, we haven’t gotten anything big done and there’s chaos at the White House. Yes, it’s a concern,” said a senior Senate GOP aide.

“If we have a crisis over the debt limit, concerns over our ability to govern will intensify,” the source added.  

The healthcare bill collapsed hours after The New Yorker published a bombshell interview with former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci that blew the lid off of infighting within President Trump’s circle of advisers.

“We’re horrified by the drama coming out of the White House,” said a Republican senator who requested anonymity to comment frankly on the administration.

The lawmaker said the failure of the healthcare bill is a “wakeup call” and a “kick in the butt” for Republican senators to get organized or risk falling into what that person described as the disarray of the White House.

“We don’t want to fall into the same soup,” the lawmaker said.

Signs that the GOP infighting is rapidly extending beyond the White House are now evident, suggesting mounting frustration.

Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus, issued a scathing rebuke of his GOP colleagues this week, declaring, “The Republican Party is dead.”

In an op-ed in The Denver Post, Buck wrote that Republicans had offered voters a “vision for a better America” — ObamaCare repeal, tax reform, a balanced budget —but, so far, have fulfilled none of those conservative promises.

“[W]hat have we done? Congress passed an omnibus spending bill that betrays our values. A replacement for Obamacare lies dead on the Senate floor. We’ve heard about tax reform but seen nothing yet. Immigration reform is talked about more on Fox News than it is on the House floor,” wrote Buck, the former GOP freshman class president who was first elected in 2014.

Buck ended his diatribe with one final insult: calling the GOP’s current leaders “a ‘B-team’ of messengers who distract the nation with frivolities.”

A senior GOP aide argued that the House has been productive and that the problem is Democratic obstruction in the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to pass most controversial legislation.

“Our chamber has been busy passing bills this year, many of which go with little coverage or fanfare, including major ones like the [Department of Veterans Affairs] reform bill and Dodd-Frank repeal,” the aide said.

“The House is racking and stacking bills for the Senate to act on. We can’t control the upper chamber’s agenda.”

Some Republicans are calling on McConnell and other GOP leaders to work more closely with Democrats on big issues such as healthcare and tax reform, making the case that trying to push through major bills on partisan votes is futile when the party is divided between conservatives and moderates.

Some House Republicans say it’s time to work across the aisle, particularly on issues like the debt ceiling and reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which need to be done by the end of September.

“I’m predisposed toward getting reforms done in a number of different areas, and if there’s a potential for bipartisanship, I think that’s the preferred avenue,” said Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.), a member of the moderate Tuesday Group whose swing district includes affluent suburbs outside of Philadelphia.

“You need 60 votes in the Senate for most things, and I think working backward from that premise can yield more legislative successes.”

But conservatives are skeptical that working with Democrats will yield any worthwhile results, laying bare another divide GOP leaders will have to wrestle with in the weeks ahead.

“I would welcome working with Democrats. Sadly, I’m not optimistic that Democrats have any willingness to work together to get anything done,” said conservative Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). “The modern Democratic Party is captured by the radical far left.”

Tags John Thune Mitch McConnell Ron Johnson Ted Cruz
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