The “Never Trump” movement began to fade after Donald Trump became the GOP presidential nominee, and it shriveled up when Donald Trump claimed victory over Democratic Hillary Clinton and ‘establishment’ Republican naysayers climbed aboard the Trump train.
With the Republicans in control of the White House and both chambers of Commerce for the first time in a decade, the GOP’s agenda of repealing and replacing Obamacare, ramming through major tax relief, curtailing regulations and construction of a security wall along the 2,000-mile southern border all seemed like a slam dunk.
Little more than ten days into the new tumultuous Trump administration, small fissures are beginning to develop within the party that could threaten important parts of the GOP agenda in the coming months. While experts say it’s far too soon to gauge the extent of party unity heading into some of the Republicans’ biggest challenges this year – including confirming Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court – there already have been some warning signs of a possible backlash.
The first sign surfaced late last week in Philadelphia, where House and Senate Republicans staged a three-day policy retreat. During protracted closed-door meeting, both rank and file members and more senior Republicans voiced concern that Trump and congressional leaders might be inadvertently leading them into political quicksand by pressing for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act before the party has designed a practical replacement that would prevent tens of millions of Americans from losing their health insurance.
While House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) were boasting to reporters that Republicans were moving swiftly to “rescue” Americans from a crumbling and costly Obamacare system, other members were caught on tape fretting that GOP ideas for improving the system don’t add up to a coherent plan.
“We’d better be sure that we’re prepared to live with the market we’ve created” with repeal, said Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA), according to a recording leaked by someone in the room. “That’s going to be called Trumpcare. Republicans will own that lock, stock and barrel, and we’ll be judged in the election less than two years away.”
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During that same conference, some Republicans raised concerns about Trump’s call for an historic buildup in the U.S. military and nuclear arsenal in the coming decade, asking how Congressional leaders intended to pay for that and other initiatives without sharply cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid or by simply adding to the national debt.
“From what I’ve seen, there’s a lot of inner turmoil in a lot of these members that they’re getting into something – at a much earlier stage – that they didn’t think they’d have to deal with,” Norman Ornstein, a congressional political expert with the American Enterprise Institute, said in an interview. “Barely more than a week into this new world, plenty are trying to figure out how to get out of it.”
Some Republicans reportedly were taken aback by Trump’s feud with the media last week over the size of his inauguration crowd, and his insistence on pursuing a wide-ranging probe into his unfounded claims that three million to five million people voted illegally for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the November election.
Then, amidst a global uproar and chaos over Trump’s executive order abruptly blocking all refugees from entering the country for the next 120 days and barring all visitors from seven majority Muslim countries for the next 90 days, a steadily growing group of Republican lawmakers either denounced the action or voiced strong reservations.
Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both leading voices on national defense and foreign policy, quickly complained that Trump’s executive order had not been properly vetted and could be seen as the U.S. turning its back on Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere who had risked their lives to serve as interpreters and guides to the military.
“Ultimately, we fear this executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism,” they wrote. Trump later dismissed the statement by McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a decorated Vietnam War pilot, and Graham as “weak” on national security.
Yet four other Senate Republicans, including Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Jerry Moran of Kansas, came out strongly against the executive order, according to a tally by The Hill. Collins, for example, said that "religious tests serve no useful purpose in the immigration process and run contrary to our American values."
Fifteen other Republican senators, including McConnell, the majority leader, and Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker of Tennessee, expressed concern or reservations about the way it was handled, according to The Hill. McConnell said that "it's a good idea to tighten the vetting process, but I also think it's important to remember that some of our best sources in the war against radical Islamic terrorism are Muslims." Ryan has largely defended Trump’s actions.
Corker, Alexander and Collins have also raised concerns about their party’s health care strategy, favoring instead a more measured pace in developing a replacement for Obamacare – one that might take years rather than months to fully implement.
Collins and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) have co-sponsored a bill that would essentially leave it to the states to decide whether to continue operating under the Affordable Care Act or adopt a replacement plan largely funded by the federal government. Graham recently signed onto the bill.
Nine or 10 House Republicans came out against the executive order as well, including conservative Justin Amash of Michigan and moderate Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania. However, the Republicans hold an overwhelming 247 to 188 vote majority in the House, and Ryan should have relatively little trouble holding his conservative caucus together to advance the Trump agenda and fend off Democratic assaults.
But it is a far different picture in the Senate, where McConnell and the Republicans hold a narrow 52 to 48 majority over the Democrats and can ill afford to suffer any defections. Much has been made about the GOP’s plan to utilize special budget reconciliation rules to push through a repeal of major provisions of Obamacare with a simple majority.
Usually, it takes a 60-vote supermajority to cut off a filibuster and pass a major bill. Under reconciliation, however, the party in power needs just 51 votes to pass a budgets measure that eviscerates key subsidies, tax provisions and mandates on individuals and businesses. However, if just three Republicans voted against the budget, that would stop the Obamacare repeal effort in its tracks.
GOP party unity will also be critical in adopting Obamacare replacement legislation. That’s because any plan advanced by the GOP would not be afforded special treatment under reconciliation rules and would need a super-majority of 60 votes to get anything done. That means McConnell and his lieutenants will somehow have to keep their party members n line while rounding up at least eight Democratic votes.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York has said Democrats will not help the Republicans pass a replacement plan if they forge ahead and repeal Obamacare without an acceptable replacement in hand. What’s more, Republicans will need Democratic help down the road on a broad array of spending measures -– including Trump’s proposed defense buildup –- and meeting an April 28 deadline for averting another government shutdown.
The Democrats’ most immediate concern is fighting Trump’s immigration executive order and they spent the weekend rallying opposition and resources to help refugees and migrants caught up in the crisis. Schumer fought back tears in announcing plans to introduce a bill Monday evening to stop the order.
McConnell and other Republicans blocked the Democrats effort to bring the bill to the floor, but Democrats say the fight over it served to put Republicans on the spot. Last night, a large crowd of Democrats turned out for a protest in front of the Supreme Court.
Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster and political adviser, said that while Trump and the Republicans may have gotten off to a rocky start, the looming battle between the Republicans and Democrats over Trump’s Supreme Court nominee will soon dominate the news. Trump is scheduled to announce his choice to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia on Tuesday evening.
“There will always be things that a President will do that will cause some disagreement [within the party], but it’s much too early to be talking about any split. The real question is whether the Democrats will split over a Supreme Court nominee. There clearly are as many divisions in the Democratic party as the Republican party right now.”