Fresh cracks appear in Trump’s relationship with conservatives in Congress

The following article by Jame sHohmann and Breanne Deppisch was posted on the Washington Post website January 27, 2017:

John McCain and Lindsey Graham read the newspaper yesterday as they wait for President Trump to speak at the annual congressional GOP retreat in Philadelphia. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)</p>

John McCain and Lindsey Graham read the newspaper yesterday as they wait for President Trump to speak at the annual congressional GOP retreat in Philadelphia. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

THE BIG IDEA: Tensions emerged underneath the bonhomie at the Republican retreat in Philadelphia.

Will Donald Trump coopt conservatives on Capitol Hill, or will he be coopted? This tug of war will be one of the most important storylines of 2017, and after a week of caving to the new president, there were glimmers yesterday that at least some principled conservatives in Congress will assert themselves after all.

The differences appeared on two issues that are definitional to modern conservatism: spending and trade.

Trump is unabashedly not conservative on these matters. He’s a nationalistic populist who believes in big government, as long as it’s doing what he wants (think eminent domain) and he’s the one who controls the spigot (e.g. a trillion-dollar “infrastructure” package designed to reward his cronies).

The president even told Fox News’s Sean Hannity last night that balancing the budget is no longer one of his priorities. “A balanced budget is fine, but sometimes you have to fuel the well in order to really get the economy going,” Trump said.

Imagine how Republicans would have responded if Barack Obama said that.

As Bill Buckley put it when he launched National Review in 1955, “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling ‘Stop,’ at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”

That’s what we saw last night after the White House floated (and then awkwardly walked back) a 20 percent tax on all imports from Mexico. The ambiguous announcement from Sean Spicer, described as a way to force our southern neighbor to pay for a border wall, was rushed out in order to retaliate against the Mexican president for canceling his trip to Washington next week.

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The president’s tax plan must win approval in Congress. It should go without saying, but just because Trump has Republican majorities does not mean his agenda will make it through. Recall that George W. Bush had GOP majorities in both chambers when his pushes for Social Security and immigration reform failed.

In the Senate, Republicans only have 52 seats – so three defections on anything could mean failure. That’s why it is significant that three free-traders spoke up forcefully last night about Trump’s tax plans:

McCain and Graham lost Joe Lieberman, the original “third amigo,” to retirement. Then they lost Kelly Ayotte to last year’s election. Perhaps Sasse, the first-termer from Nebraska, could re-complete the triumvirate?

John Cornyn, the number two in Senate Republican leadership and whose border state of Texas has much to lose if Trump gets his way, also expressed pointed skepticism:

Other Republicans had doubts, as well. “Many do not support a tariff. Lawmakers are also concerned that without such changes, there is no way to offset or make up elsewhere the costs of the enormous structure,” Sean Sullivan reports.

“I generally don’t vote for anything that’s not offset,” said Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho). “Everything needs to be offset.”

On the border wall generally, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) would not commit to approving the billions Trump is seeking during a TV interview.

He’s in the House, but Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), whose district includes 800 miles of border, warned that Trump’s wall would harm private property rights. “Building a wall is the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border,” Hurd said.

President Trump’s full speech at the GOP retreat


One of the president’s top priorities continues to be passing a massive spending bill to build roads, bridges and other transportation projects. This could blow up the deficit, and congressional Republicans are increasingly making clear that such a package is not really on their agenda.

When Trump mentioned rebuilding infrastructure during his speech in Philadelphia yesterday, he received no applause from the assembled lawmakers.

GOP leadership privately told their rank-and-file that the initial draft of their legislative agenda did not include any measure to boost transportation projects, but Trump himself insisted on it. Still, no details, such as a price tag or structure, were discussed during a members-only planning session, according to people in the room.

John Thune is not just the number three in Senate Republican leadership, he’s also chairman of the Senate’s commerce and transportation committee. So he’d be in line to dole out some of that money. But when a reporter asked him during a press conference, he said that it is a matter of IF – not when – Congress takes up a package.

“An infrastructure bill would have to go through Congress,” the South Dakotan said. “Obviously, it’d have to be funded. … Right now, we’ve got a very focused agenda of things that we want to get done in the next 200 days. And how infrastructure plays into that, we’re not sure yet. It could hitch a ride perhaps on some tax reform bill. But I think at this point, that’s probably a preliminary discussion to have.”

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