Congress wasn’t doing a lot before Donald Trump all but secured the Republican presidential nomination. And it’s likely that Trump’s fait accompli Tuesday could diminish congressional productivity even further.
As lawmakers return to Washington after a week-long respite, Trump is already in a churning battle with House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and rank-and-file Republicans are divided over what to do about the top of the ticket.
Moreover, lawmakers will convene in Washington for the first time with Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee. This is likely to spark four phenomena:
Some Republican lawmakers who were reluctant to embrace Trump will rush to join the bandwagon.
Secondly, some will dash the other direction to dodge Trump and build distance between their campaign and the New York businessman.
Third, Democrats will stoke the political embers, painting Trump and Republicans together in the same camp.
Fourth, political talk will dominate the Capitol. Reporters will pepper congressional GOPers about why they are or aren’t backing Trump. Will there be a third party candidate? A savior emerging on a white horse?
And you can bet someone will at least sprint to the post in some effort to court Ryan again despite his Sherman-esque statement a few weeks ago about not running for president. This is to say nothing of some Republicans who will blast Ryan for not publicly supporting Trump.
Trump creates headaches for Ryan and other congressional leaders.
The speaker always says he wants a competition of ideas. Well, how about the idea of building a wall along the Mexican border and forcing Mexico to pay for it? How about the idea that Trump wants to kick Muslims out of the country? How about Trump’s position to cut off foreign workers? What about the idea Trump has to strip some native-born Americans of their citizenship?
What about Trump’s idea to deploy the military as a kind of domestic police force and come for families of those associated with terrorists? And what about Trump’s idea to not touch Social Security (one of the key drivers of the national debt) yet hack all federal outlays in half in order to balance the budget in less than a decade?
These are the reasons why Ryan can’t get behind Trump just yet.
On several occasions, Ryan has taken special care to disavow Trump’s remarks related to everything from Muslims to white supremacy.
But if Ryan wants the debate to be about ideas and Trump secured the nomination, well, it’s pretty clear which ideas won out. Which idea is easier for the average voter to understand? Trump talking about rounding up Muslims or building walls … , or Ryan’s preference of wonky, Oxford-style debate on tax inversions?
For Republicans, that ship has sailed and perhaps already sinking, some suggest.
What is unclear is what Congress may try to tackle in the coming months. Perhaps an even better question is what appetite Congress has to address much of anything in the near-term with Trump apparently on the ballot.
The first issue is time.
Congress is back for just a few weeks and then heads out for Memorial Day. Back a few more weeks then gone for July 4th. Then, two weeks in session before both the House and Senate depart on a staggering, nearly-eight week furlough for the Republican and Democratic conventions.
That’s coupled with the “August” recess that bleeds into September. Then there’s another respite in October so lawmakers can campaign at home. And don’t forget, there’s a campaign afoot among some congressional conservatives to ban a lame-duck session.
They argue that Congress accomplishes little that isn’t politically-charged in a lame-duck session (hence the reason some tough issues are delayed until after the election).
Therefore, Congress should wrap business before the election and only let the new Congress and the new president grapple with thorny topics next year.
For starters, there are the annual spending bills to fund the government. The Senate was trying last week to move through its first appropriations bill of the cycle, dealing with $37.5 million for energy and water programs.
But senators got locked up on an issue about the Obama administration dealing in “heavy water” with Tehran as part of the Iran agreement.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ariz., engineered an amendment to prohibit the United States from buying heavy water, used in nuclear reactors, from Iran in the future. Democrats stalled Cotton’s amendment and the entire bill.
And so the Senate’s first appropriations bill of the year lies in limbo.
Come mid-month, the House will begin floor work on the 12 appropriations bills.
Various sources tell Fox News the House should be able to knock out spending packages covering military construction, the legislative branch, energy and water programs, transportation issues, defense, financial services and perhaps one or two others. But floor time is at a maximum. And that’s to say nothing of stray issues that could arise in even the “easy” appropriations bills.
Take the legislative branch measure that funds Congress.
Conservatives are livid that the Library of Congress altered its search engines to strike “pejorative” terms such as “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien.” Instead, Republicans want to return the old verbiage to the search engines. And it’s unknown if the issue could become so nettlesome that it trips up possible Senate confirmation of Carla Hayden to become the Librarian of Congress. If confirmed, Hayden would become the first African American and first woman run the library.
Yes, time is a problem for Congress. But time is only an issue because of politics. Congressional leaders control the calendar. There was a conscious decision by leaders to craft such a truncated schedule this year to accommodate both political conventions in July.
One might argue that Congress could always just return to session in August if necessary to address major issues. But there isn’t a lot of political will now to do much of anything. On the right, Republicans are just waiting out the Obama presidency -- and hoping for the best come November.
Some Republicans are not-so-secretly hoping for an indictment of Hillary Clinton regarding her use of private emails for official business while secretary of state.
But some of even the most-partisan Republicans are not terribly excited about the prospects of Trump. That’s why many are already waiting for 2020.
You think Congress isn’t doing a lot now? Wait for that four-year, congressional cryogenic freeze.
Yes, Republicans may be waiting out the Obama presidency. But many GOPers are afraid to move legislatively because Trump devoured the Republican “establishment” apparatus alive.
With Trump, there’s no normal on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers now must make their legislative and political decisions based on an entirely new calculus. Nobody completely understands the broad dimension of the Trump Effect in the halls of Congress.
Of course, some Republicans could opt for a completely different approach. Work like dogs all summer to distract from Trump. Show that Congress is effective -- even in a bipartisan way. Find a worthy negotiating partner in a lame-duck president. This builds natural distance from Trump -- if that’s what Republicans want.
The question is appetite. And in this political environment, no one knows what dish is most appealing to the palette.