President Trump and the Republican Congress: Smooth Sailing or Choppy Waters?

For only the third time since 1929, the Republican Party will control the House, Senate and the White House and have the opportunity to choose a Supreme Court nominee. As a result, most observers believe that President-elect Trump will ascend to the presidency with a uniquely consolidated power base. Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill are ready to set their agenda in motion.

However, even with President Trump officially in control of the White House, many wonder what exactly to expect from a party that has been in a philosophical tug-of-war between its stalwarts and new standard-bearer. Will the President defer to the party’s policy wonks in the House and Senate to usher in the changes many conservatives are expecting, or will he stand firm on his numerous campaign promises that stray from traditional conservative principles?

Republican control of Congress and the White House, however, by no means ensures the relationship between Trump and Congress will be smooth sailing or that Trump’s legislative proposals and policies will prevail.  This is the opinion of Republican staffers who recently conducted a survey on how smoothly things will go. While staff predicted only 9 percent of the issues would go poorly, and 26 percent would go smoothly; 64 percent would proceed in “fits and starts,” a far more realistic assessment.

President Trump and the Senate

Republicans hold a narrow majority in the Senate (52 seats) which is not enough to pass legislation given the 60 vote threshold needed for passage. Thus, there is little room for Republican defections and potentially gives the Democratic minority (48 seats) the opportunity to throw up legislative roadblocks. Democrats, however, must be careful not to be seen as blocking the President’s legislative initiatives. Twenty-three Democrats (versus eight Republicans) face re-election in 2018 and many of these Democrats represent states that Trump carried. Democrats are all too aware that the perception they oppose the President’s policies could result in voter backlash in 2018.

President Trump has far fewer allies in the Senate than in the House. His strongest supporter in the Senate appear to be Senators Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) and Tim Scott (R-South Carolina). Scott is the only African American member of the Senate. As such he has the potential to be the liaison between the President and the black communities. Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) could emerge as a Trump ally. Reportedly Manchin was under consideration for a cabinet position, but decided to remain in the Senate. Machin is running for re-election in 2018 and his is keenly aware that Trump won West Virginia with a greater percentage of the vote than in any other state, so Manchin must be prudent in his dealings with the President.

Some analysts believe it is the Senate that will determine whether Trump fails or succeeds.  One test will be confirmation of the President’s cabinet nominees. So far the Senate has confirmed the national security team; General James Mattis as Secretary of Defense; General Mike Kelly, to lead the Department of Homeland Security, and Representative Mike Pompeo, to be Director, Central Intelligence Agency. Several more including Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State are awaiting confirmation by the full Senate. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) approved Tillerson’s nomination on a straight party line vote of 11-10 on January 23. Despite some controversies all of Trump’s nominees are expected to be easily confirmed, including Tillerson, due to a rules change in 2013, which eliminated the rule requiring 60 votes to approve a nominee, now requiring only a simple majority of 51 votes. The rule does not apply to Supreme Court nominees or legislation. These confirmations are not surprising or necessarily a bellwether of what is to come. Historically, the Senate has approved the nominees of a new president.

Rather, it will be the future legislative battles that determine how much support the President has in the Senate. According to a report by David Graham of the Atlantic, 11 of 52 Republican Senators refused to support Trump during the campaign, or at least expressed concerns about his fitness for office. Now that he is President, Senate Republicans have likely calculated that supporting the President is in the best interest of the Party, not to mention their political future.

Still, like the House Republicans, Senate Republicans are not a united bloc. Some are pure partisans, while others like Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), Chairman of the SFRC, tend to be more pragmatic. Others hold very strong views on issues that could create conflict with the Trump Administration, such as immigration reform. It will be up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) to hold this group together.

McConnell has said he agrees with Trump on far more than he opposes. “We have a terrific relationship.” “He’s very, very accessible, very energetic.” At this early stage, McConnell’s statement portends a cordial and helpful relationship with the President and for his agenda. However, pushing through any controversial legislation with a small majority of 52 will not be easy. The majority of bills and Supreme Court appointments will still require 60 votes, and it will be up to McConnell to convince eight Democrats to vote with Republicans – no easy task. Senate Minority Leader Charles “Chuck” Schumer (D-New York) will do his best to keep Senate Democrats in line.

Trump and House Republicans

In the House, Republicans control 241 seats to Democrats’ 194, but the Republicans are even less united there than in the Senate. Thus, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) must struggle to hold together a fractious Republican conference plagued by political and ideological infighting over the past several years.

It is important to understand that during the two and a half months between the elections and President Trump’s inauguration, Republican leadership and rank-and-file members alike came to the realization that working with the new president may not be as easy as they previously thought. To be sure, Republican representatives drew ridicule from then President-Elect Trump for moves to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics soon after commencing the 115th Congress.

While the move to gut its own oversight mechanism is suspicious and likely warranted the President Trump’s Twitter reprimand, there are a host of other less controversial issues on which the President and House Republicans have failed to agree. Speaker Paul Ryan scrambled to defend his longstanding tax reform plan after President Trump dismissed it as “too complicated.” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has, on a couple of occasions, failed to support Trump’s vow to levy tariffs on US companies that offshore jobs and want to export products stateside. More generally, President Trump has proposed an infrastructure plan with a hefty price tag, boxed Republican legislators in with his Obamacare “repeal and replace” parameters, and vowed not to touch entitlement reforms; these positions will all but certainly lead to a faceoff with many legislators, including the deficit hawks that occupy the Freedom Caucus.

President Trump’s interactions with House Republicans are a must-watch for reasons like those above. With Democrats buried under a 47-seat majority (not to mention 18 Democratic representatives hail from states Trump carried), the biggest obstacle to jamming legislation through the House comes from the GOP itself. For the sake of self-preservation, it is probable that traditionally conservative House members bury their convictions and support the new President on many issues. But, should Trump’s ambitions draw serious concerns from the rank-and-file members, he will rely heavily on his allies at the Capitol to garner that needed support to accomplish his lofty goals.

Here are a few names we can expect President Trump to consider allies in the House of Representatives:

Kevin Brady (R-TX)Rep. Brady is arguably the most powerful Trump supporter in the House. He serves as Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and will have considerable clout in three of Trump’s most critical policy fields: trade deal renegotiations, healthcare reform, and tax reform.

Marsha Blackburn (R-TN)Rep. Blackburn has been one of Trump’s leading female supporters and has served on the President’s transition team. As a Vice Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Blackburn will have some serious input in shaping healthcare and trade reform.

Duncan Hunter (R-CA) and Lou Barletta (R-PA)Representatives Hunter and Barletta have each been early—and vociferous—supporters of Trump. As members of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, they are believed to be important advocates for a lofty and expensive infrastructure-spending plan that the Trump team has crafted. As a potentially contentious issue, look for these two members to try to whip up the necessary votes to accomplish a plan as close to Trump’s original as possible.

Chris Collins (R-NY) and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.)While Representative Collins was the first member of Congress to come out in support of President Trump, both members have since played integral roles in Trump’s transition team. Collins served as the congressional liaison for the transition team while Cramer was an architect of the Trump energy platform. Both representatives serve on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and will be vocal advocates of US-independence in energy markets.

Tom Marino (R-PA)Representative Marino is another early supporter of the President’s and he is expected to use his seat on the Committee on the Judiciary to push for regulation reform in the banking and interstate commerce sectors.

While the President can likely depend on these longtime supporters to vouch for his policy positions and usher in his stated reforms, he must do his best to keep cordial relations with higher ranking and more powerful members that have been hesitant to support him in the past. Speaker Ryan, Majority Leader McCarthy, Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-NC), and others should be consulted if Trump hopes to pass any meaningful legislation with GOP support. While the list of ardent Trump supporters in the House is short, there is a chance that list could grow in the coming months. Barring a surprising vote in the Senate, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS), Tom Price (R-GA), and Ryan Zinke (R-MT) will serve of Trump’s Cabinet and will need their congressional seats filled. President Trump won all three states, so it is not too far-fetched to think any candidate that wins those vacancies will be a staunch—or at least amenable—supporter of Trump. For instance, Tom Price’s wife, Betty, is said to be considering a run for his congressional spot. With her spouse being a Trump advocate and Cabinet member, Mrs. Price could be an equally supportive member in the House.

One unlikely ally Donald Trump could find in the House is none other than Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Under any other circumstance, it would be nearly unimaginable for Pelosi to reach across the aisle, or for Republicans to court her support. But, President Trump is unorthodox and his more liberal spending plans may not have the Republican support he would need to pass strictly on a partisan vote. If Pelosi sees an opportunity to sign Democrats up in support of, let’s say, a plan to spend a few hundred billion dollars on infrastructure, it’s not unreasonable to think she would take that opportunity and give her Democratic colleagues a campaign talking point come 2018.

The GOP’s consolidated power gives its members high hopes it can correct eight years of congressional dysfunction and push through conservative policies that Republican constituents expect. In any other Republican presidency, there would be no second thoughts from Congress on which policies to support. However, as President Trump has illustrated for 18 months, he is anything but traditional and Republicans in both houses are treading a little lighter as they try and understand how Trump plans to work with, or against, their conservative wishes.

Key Foreign Policy Issues

Israel/Palestine: In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), General Mattis told the panel that he considers Tel Aviv to be the capital of Israel, a statement not welcomed by those members who are advocating that the US Embassy be relocated to Jerusalem, a move which President-elect Trump also supports. However, UN Ambassador-designate, Nikki Haley told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) she supports moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, as do a majority in Congress. There are however, a number of members who do not, so there is likely to be some opposition to legislation which has been introduced, calling for the Embassy to be relocated. While some argue the President can do this by Executive Order, Congress will need to amend the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, calling for the Embassy to be moved, but which also provides a presidential waiver authority which would prevent the move.

Iran Nuclear Deal: President Trump has been highly critical of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Several of his nominees also share Trump’s view. Trump has threatened to tear up the agreement but since assuming office his rhetoric on this point has appeared to soften. However, even if President Trump were to pull out of the agreement, a return to pre-JCPOA multilateral sanctions regime, which relied on support from UN Security Council members China and Russ, and Europe, seems unlikely. Moreover, a US nullification more than likely would cause Iran to return to prior levels of uranium enrichment. Congress enacted the Iran Sanctions Extension Act in the closing days of the 114th Congress, but there are other bills introduced or re-introduced in the 115th Congress that would impose sanctions on Iran with respect to its Ballistic Missile Program. Trump and Congress are likely to find common ground on additional sanctions legislation.

Russia: Democrats and a few prominent Republicans are calling for an aggressive review of alleged Russian hacking the 2016 election. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) have called for anew bipartisan investigation of alleged Russian activity. McConnell, however, opposes this step and want closed door briefing. Another issue is sanctions on Russia imposed by former President Obama. In addition, Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) has introduced legislation to impose sanctions in response to cyber intrusions by Russia and other aggressive activities of the Russian Federation.  This put President Trump, who has defended Putin, in a difficult position. A number of Republican Senators are likely to support the bill, and McConnell has said that Russia is no friend of the United States.

Conclusion

History has proved that the unbridled joy of the Republicans at having control is likely to be short-lived and this euphoria may quickly fade as the 115th Congress begins to consider a number of “hot-button” issues.  In addition to the above examples, this Republican Congress will consider the thorny Middle East issues, including Syria and Islamic State, tax reduction legislation, dismantling environmental, labor and financial regulations, and the difficult task of immigration reform.

Democrats must be careful to avoid being held responsible for any legislative gridlock likely to occur, and at least give the appearance of doing what is best for the American public. Democrats are all too aware of the stakes in the 2018 elections and their actions will be guided by the need to win in 2018

 
Roxanne Perugino is a Resident Analyst at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Roxanne and read her previous publications click here
 
*Marcus Montgomery, congressional intern, contributed to this report.