WASHINGTON — Lawmakers have scattered for their summer recess, leaving behind a slim record of achievements and a steaming President Donald Trump. The president is angry about what the Republican-led Congress couldn't do — repeal Obamacare — as well as one of the few things it did: approve a Russia sanctions bill he detests.
So Republican senators leave Washington with simmering tensions between them and the White House now out in public for all to see. They'll face voters back home who have cause for frustration about an unproductive Congress led by a party given over to infighting.
Lamenting poor relations with Russia, Trump sniped over Twitter on Thursday, “You can thank Congress, the same people that can't even give us HCare!”
“I was shocked by that,” responded Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who is not one for criticizing Trump publicly. “Relations with Russia are in a bad place, and it's entirely because of Vladimir Putin, it's not because of Congress.”
Overall, as Republicans took stock of the past seven months of control of the House and Senate under the Trump administration, the mood was glum. The House began its summer recess last week, but as senators rushed for the exits Thursday they were still pointing to the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court as their signal success, even though that happened back in April.
Last week's failure of their Obamacare repeal efforts after seven years of ardent campaign promises still stung. And Republicans have also failed to make much progress on other marquee agenda items, like a tax overhaul or an infrastructure bill, while falling behind on the annual spending bills needed to keep the lights on in government. A fight on that looms this fall or winter, along with the threat of a government shutdown if Trump presses for money for his border wall that Democrats are certain to reject.
“We've got to do better,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican.
In a final burst of action Thursday, the Senate overwhelmingly approved a Food and Drug Administration funding bill, and agreed to more than 60 Trump administration nominees, more executive branch nominations in a single day than the Senate had approved all year to date. Republicans have bitterly blamed Democrats’ foot-dragging on nominees for many of their problems, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky heralded Thursday's actions as “an important step towards filling critical roles throughout the administration.”
Indeed, GOP lawmakers have complained all year that they're not getting enough credit for the things they are doing, as opposed to criticism for what they are not.
“We have not done well on the big events,” said Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. “But the run of the mill, the bipartisan legislation, that never gets actual media attention, I think we've had a fairly robust six months.”
Like other Republicans, Scott cited the GOP's success in overturning a series of Obama administration regulations, employing the little-used Congressional Review Act.
Yet what lawmakers left undone promises to make for an ugly September on Capitol Hill.
Two must-do items will dominate the agenda: increasing the government's debt limit to prevent a catastrophic default on U.S. obligations like interest payments and Social Security checks; and passing a temporary spending bill to keep government agencies up and running.
The debt limit increase is particularly nettlesome and many Republicans in Congress simply can't bring themselves to vote for it. But with a Republican in the White House and the party controlling both the House and the Senate, it's the GOP's responsibility to deliver the votes.
The White House and congressional Republicans are also promising action early this fall to change the loophole-choked tax code and lower rates for both corporations and individuals. After their meltdown on health care, Republicans are particularly determined to succeed with a tax overhaul, with some arguing that if they succeed in giving voters a tax break, the Obamacare repeal failure will be forgiven and forgotten.
But core tax overhaul principles — such as whether the effort would add to the budget deficit — haven't been ironed out, much less the devilish details.
And a wild card element is whether Trump will press to pay for the U.S.-Mexico border wall as part of the spending bill. That could spark a confrontation with Democrats, and even threaten a shutdown. Cooler heads may counsel the White House to put off that confrontation until later.
Still, after the past rocky months, Republicans are hoping against hope that with all the work ahead, relations with the White House will improve. They're hanging on to one cause for optimism: the appointment of John Kelly as White House chief of staff, which several GOP senators said they hope will calm the chaos on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
“I think how the president moves now into the next issues we deal with is really important,” said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri. “And we're hopeful about the new staff structure and I think we're going to see things begin to happen in different ways.”
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