The breach will come in September. The breakpoint has been coming for a while now. It’s built over the past few weeks as President Trump browbeat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The schisms grew when GOP Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas called out the president for his comments about the violence in Charlottesville.
But it will metastasize later this summer over health care payments, government spending, avoiding a federal shutdown and the debt ceiling.
Ever so slowly, Trump has distanced himself from many Republicans in Congress. In turn, many congressional Republicans have erected a trench between themselves and the president. After all, this was only a marriage of convenience. Not true love.
Consider how critical Trump was of Congress after the health care debacle.
One can find clues to this fissure in the signing statement Trump issued after he reluctantly put his name on the “Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act.”
The plan imposed penalties on Russia, North Korea and Iran that Trump said he favored. But the president then bludgeoned Congress, declaring “this legislation is significantly flawed.”
It’s not new for presidents to compose signing statements to provide context and views about bills they ink into law. Presidents have long added caveats about what they like and dislike concerning legislation.
They may telegraph how they plan to interpret or execute a law -- sometimes contrary to the vision of Congress. A closer inspection of Trump’s signing statement reflected the contempt he had for lawmakers on the sanctions bill. It could be a taste of things to come.
He noted that Congress “in its haste to pass this legislation included a number of clearly unconstitutional provisions.”
Trump said that sections of the plan “purport to displace the president’s exclusive constitutional authority of recognized foreign governments.”
He again characterized the bill as “flawed” near the end of the signing statement.
In short, I’ll sign it, but I don’t like it.
Not exactly the type of bluster and braggadocio we heard from candidate Trump on the campaign trail last year.
That signing statement could forecast what to expect from Trump and Congress in the coming weeks as they hurtle down a collision course with health care payments, government operations and the debt limit.
In reality, there is a chasm between what many lawmakers know is operationally possible in Congress and what averts a legislative calamity on these issues and what the president would like to do.
Congressional sources say lawmakers will soldier on, develop some Band-Aid fixes for this trifecta of crises and essentially dare Trump to veto the legislation.
The bet on Capitol Hill is that he will do so grudgingly.
Keep in mind, these aren’t Republicans in Congress challenging President Obama over health care in 2013, sparking a shutdown.
This is a Republican House, a Republican Senate and a Republican president. That attests to the size of the crevasses between Capitol Hill and the White House these days.
The first issue is health care and Cost Sharing Reduction payments. CSR’s defray the discounts health insurance companies offer poor customers when they sell them insurance. The government is due to pay the next installment on August 21.
Trump threatened to cut off the payments to get lawmakers scurrying to the table to repeal and replace ObamaCare. But so far, there’s no movement from the administration.
A maneuver to halt the payments could wreck the health care system and harm many Americans who support the president. Republicans repeatedly talk about how they need to “stabilize” the health care markets. A failure to make the August 21 payment produces precisely the opposite effect.
Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the panel, plan bipartisan hearings in September to address the CSR problem and bring continuity to the health care marketplace.
A decision by the administration to slash the payments may embolden bipartisan lawmakers to redouble their efforts when it comes to plussing-up the CSR’s.
A standalone vote for this in both the House and Senate is a tacit reaffirmation of ObamaCare. But Republicans concede they may get smoked if they don’t figure the CSR’s out in some form. A bipartisan solution could be the best route.
Then there’s the debt limit -- the total balance the U.S. is allowed to carry at any one time.
Congressional conservatives are beside themselves that there’s no concrete plan to actually reduce spending right now. Therefore, they’re unwilling to vote for a debt ceiling increase.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has advocated a “clean” debt-ceiling increase by September 29. It’s believed that whatever action Congress takes, it will delay grappling with the debt limit until after the 2018 midterm elections.
So it’s likely Mnuchin and actuaries will determine an approximate debt-ceiling dollar figure and peg it to a date in late 2018 or early 2019.
The new threshold must be somewhere north of $20 trillion. Naturally, Republicans don’t want to be on the hook for just increasing the debt ceiling with nothing to show for it.
Expect a coalition of some Republicans and lots of Democrats to come together -- especially if the final agreement is a clean debt-limit increase with no strings attached. Democrats would likely provide the votes for that scenario.
Then there’s the issue of funding the government by the start of the new fiscal year, October 1.
The House has approved four of the 12 annual spending bills that run the government. The Senate hasn’t done anything. So, expect lawmakers to forge what is often called a “CR” to keep the lights on in Washington. A CR is short for a “Continuing Resolution.”
It re-ups federal funding at the current level for a short period. Lawmakers and journalists alike can’t wait for September to differentiate between the CR and health care CSR’s. It’s sure to confuse the public.
Now it gets tricky. It’s possible lawmakers could wrap the health care CSR’s, the debt ceiling and a plan to avoid a government shutdown into one, massive, grotesque legislative package.
No one will like it. But they’ve assembled Frankenstein bills like this before. At the very least, they could link two of the three. Such a package would avert a shock to the health care system, raise the debt ceiling (sidestepping a stock market meltdown) and avoid a government shutdown.
The latter would be particularly embarrassing since Republicans control all levers of government yet need help from Democrats to fund the place.
It may not work out exactly like this. But expect some variation of the above. But here’s the key: Members of Congress are working on their own and producing legislation that could fly in the face of the administration’s stated goals.
Raising the debt limit is about the only subject on which the administration has been reasonably vocal.
Mnuchin argued for a clean increase on multiple occasions. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said recently: “It’s important to raise the debt ceiling as soon as possible” to “have robust economic growth.”
This is where Congress could essentially defy the president to veto such a bill. It ain’t pretty. But it’s all easier to digest when rolled together. Plus, it’s Congress just being Congress. Waiting until the last minute. Gluing a bunch of unrelated but must-pass bills together just to engineer the votes. Congress can serve as the perfect foil to president Trump.
This would reflect the gaping canyon between the White House and Congress. But it would afford Trump the opportunity to browbeat lawmakers like he did in the Russia/North Korea/Iran sanctions signing statement.
Various crises are averted. And President Trump can again turn on his favorite whipping boy: the U.S. Congress.