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.