Given all their shenanigans over the past eight years — the government
shutdown, the threats to default on America's debts and throw the global
economy into chaos, the frenzied hatred directed at Barack Obama, the
growing ideological extremism, the general sentiment toward burning the
government down — the Republican Congress is about the last institution
from which you would expect responsibility and restraint.
Yet right now, it's looking like congressional Republicans could be the
most important force in Washington acting to keep President Trump's most
reckless instincts in check. Believe it or not, we may be witnessing the birth
of a new Republican pragmatism on Capitol Hill.
I don't want to overstate things — the GOP is still riven by factional
conflicts and has more than its share of nut bars who occupy positions of
genuine power. But the president's erratic behavior, and the impact it might
have on their own careers, seems to have led at least some Republicans
to begin appreciating the value of caution.
Let's start with the budget agreement Congress just passed to fund the
government through September. The big story was how it gave Trump almost
none of the things he wanted: no money for a border wall, no defunding
of Planned Parenthood, no massive cuts to the National Institutes
of Health or the Environmental Protection Agency, and continued costsharing
subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, among other things. How
did that happen? It's partly because Republicans needed Democratic votes
to pass it, which put Democrats in a position to make demands.
But it's also because many Republicans weren't too enthusiastic about
those priorities, either. They may be sympathetic to them, but they also appreciate
that the chances of blow back were high for actually doing them.
Sometimes it's better to advocate something without having to worry about
what happens if it comes to pass. You can say you want to cut government,
but nobody wants to have to answer questions like, "Why did you slash
funding for cancer research, Congressman?" There's no better example
than repeal of the Affordable Care Act (which we'll get to in a moment).
That's right, the president of the United States is advocating a government
shutdown. If it should happen in September, that's going to make it
awfully hard to blame the Democrats. As congressional Republicans understand
but Trump apparently doesn't, they'd get most of the blame from
the public for a shutdown. After all, they run the entire government. How
could it be anyone else's fault?
So they aren't going to let it happen. As one veteran Republican operative
told Bloomberg News, Trump's unpredictable statements are "why
members of Congress and committee chairs feel that they're on their own.
And when the president says something, sometimes they just shrug their
shoulders and go back to doing what they were already doing." Given
Trump's low approval ratings (even if he's still supported by the overwhelming
majority of Republican voters), members of Congress in both parties
aren't really afraid of him. When it comes to their reelection — always first
and foremost in their minds — they've got much more to worry about than
whether Trump tweets something mean about them.
As for Trump's implied plea to get rid of the filibuster, don't expect that
to happen any time soon either. Senate Republicans may get frustrated
when they can't pass their bills, but they also know that the filibuster will
continue to provide a handy excuse when they want to allow politically
dangerous legislation — whether it comes from the more volatile House
or from the administration — to die. (And they also want to keep it around
for the inevitable future day when they're back in the minority.)
If you're a Republican member of Congress, this is an exciting time but
also an unnerving one. You're acutely aware of the possibility of a "wave"
election in 2018 that sweeps you from office. And you know that among the
things that make a wave more likely are an unpopular president and a government
that looks dysfunctional. So while you certainly have a lot of conservative
policy goals you want to accomplish, the best thing for you is to
do them carefully and methodically, with a minimum of chaos and drama.
At times, that means backing off — like with the repeal of the ACA.
While the House leadership is still trying to pass its latest version, it looks
unlikely, because politically speaking it's a giant turd of a bill. As if the last
version weren't bad enough, this one undermines the most popular part
of the ACA — its ban on insurers denying people coverage because of
preexisting conditions. So the bill is bleeding support in the House, and
now looks likely to go down.
Even if only a couple dozen Republicans officially oppose it, you can
bet that there are many more who will be secretly pleased when it fails.
Although they can't say so publicly since they spent the past seven years
railing against Obamacare, the last few months have amply demonstrated
that if they take coverage away from 24 million people and undermine
everyone else's health security, they're in for a world of trouble at the ballot
box. Trump may desperately want a "win" on the issue (even if he neither
knows nor cares what the bill would actually do), but for members of Congress,
the risk is just too great.
So while the Republican Congress may still do a lot of things that cheer
conservatives and make liberals tear their hair out, it doesn't look like it's
going to be the orgy of right-wing legislating that some of us thought would
ensue once they got full control of the government. Enough congressional
Republicans appear to have realized that Trump and their own recent history
have put them in a precarious situation and that the best way to minimize
the danger to themselves is to proceed with caution.