Senate Republicans spent their last week before a four-week August recess on a series of moves with one main goal: Reining in Donald Trump.
The GOP delivered an unstated declaration of independence from their own Republican president by passing a Russia sanctions bill he resisted, rebuffing his demands they try again on health care after the spectacular implosion of Obamacare repeal, even taking steps to head off any attempt by Trump to fire the special counsel investigating him, Robert Mueller.
Trump’s attempts to blame and strong-arm Senate Republicans came amid mounting frustration over his stalled agenda in Congress during what’s typically the most prolific stretch of a new administration.
Indeed, the breach between the executive and legislative branches appears to be widening, despite their shared party affiliation.
“That’s a good thing, right?” South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking GOP leader, said of the moves to establish more independence from Trump. “It’s important that Congress assert its authorities under the Constitution and be an equal branch of the government.”
Republicans disputed Trump’s Thursday claim that U.S.-Russia relations have frayed, thanks to congressional sanctions that Congress passed overwhelmingly and Trump signed into law, albeit with major reservations. Instead, lawmakers laid blame squarely at the feet of the president’s would-be ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
And in another clear signal of distance from the White House, two GOP senators joined Democrats on separate pieces of legislation designed to shield the special counsel — investigating potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials — from any attempt to fire him.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who partnered with Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) on the new bill to help Mueller be reinstated if fired by Trump, told POLITICO that the proposal is “one of a number of things I’m looking at to try and seize the opportunity for us to strengthen this institution and reinstate some of the authority it’s conveyed down the street” to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
“If you look back over the last 75 years, there have been a number of instances where Congress has conveyed authority to the president because it happened to be their president in the White House,” Tillis added. “It’s more appropriate to be reserved here on Capitol Hill.”
Trump escalated his combative rhetoric toward Senate Republicans this week, suggesting that they would be “total quitters” for ending their efforts to repeal Obamacare. Even after signing a bipartisan package of sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea, Trump blamed Congress in a tweet for pushing relations with Moscow to “an all-time and dangerous low.”
Republicans rejected both arguments before leaving Washington.
They’re set to return to the Hill after Labor Day with an array of arduous battles ahead, from raising the federal debt ceiling, to avoiding a government shutdown, to crafting a tax bill — and perilously few legislative days remaining in the year. Not to mention Trump’s dimming approval ratings, which will only slice into the political capital needed to achieve the ambitious agenda the GOP promised voters.
Several Republicans said Thursday that their assertion of power was nothing more than a continuation of their resistance to Trump’s predecessor.
“I think the Founding Fathers anticipated a tension between the” legislative and executive branches, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said in an interview. “And this is the healthy tension. Even if the president is of your own party, there should still be that tension.”
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) agreed: “For as long as I’ve been in Congress, and particularly since I’ve been in the Senate, I look for a stronger Congress.”
Even while absent from the Capitol while receiving treatment for brain cancer, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — who dealt the fatal blow to his chamber’s Obamacare repeal bill last week — took time to blast Trump for criticizing the Russia sanctions bill.
“Our relationship with Russia is at a dangerous low,” McCain tweeted. Rather than Congress, he added, “you can thank Putin for attacking our democracy, invading neighbors & threatening our allies.”
Trump is running into Republican obstacles seemingly everywhere he turns these days.
On health care, GOP senators have ignored his demands to keep trying to repeal Obamacare, moving on to other priorities, such as confirming key administration nominees and looking ahead to tax reform. If anything happens on Obamacare at the moment, it’ll be bipartisan fixes that will come nowhere close to the promise of repeal that Trump pledged on the campaign trail.
The president is even threatening to blow up the health care system by cutting off Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies, which help stabilize insurance markets, as a tactic to destroy the 2010 health care law and force Democrats to negotiate.
No dice, say key Republican senators.
“I’ve recommended that he continue it,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said of the payments. “I hope that he will.”
Even Trump’s beloved border wall continues to run into resistance from Republicans.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas and three other GOP senators unveiled immigration legislation on Thursday that called for more border enforcement but made clear that a wall sealing off the U.S.-Mexico border was not their preferred route.
Cornyn said in an interview that there is now a “tremendous opportunity” for Congress to take the lead on policy.
“As we’ve seen on the Russian sanctions bill, sometimes the president will come along, even reluctantly, and we’ll be able to make progress,” Cornyn said. “Historically, it hasn’t always been the case that the president is the one who sets the policy and Congress responds. It was that Congress led. And I think this is the opportunity we have now and I welcome that.”