Congress is barreling down a road laced with uncertainty without a strong presidential hand to sway votes and without a unified majority party to wheel and deal.
That could mean tough times for a host of important initiatives. Lawmakers have about six weeks to figure out how to fund the government for the fiscal year that runs through Sept. 30. They also are trying to devise a plan to keep Dreamers in the country, fund a children’s health insurance program and fix problems in the health care system.
But last week’s Capitol Hill chaos, which included President Donald Trump at war with some Republicans and a pivotal Republican senator openly criticizing colleagues on the Senate floor, signals trouble ahead.
“You need someone to lead, but it’s not there,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., one of several center-right House Republicans who have announced plans to retire. “The challenges down at the White House are very real and everyone knows it and those challenges are impeding progress on our legislative agenda.”
Dent faulted the “continuing chaos” at the White House for putting a chill on much of the Republican agenda. He charged that during the botched effort earlier this year to repeal and replace Obamacare, the administration never defined Trump’s principles or policies “in a coherent way.”
Even the one Republican agenda item with some promise, a tax overhaul, has felt the political pain.
Trump’s assertion that there would be “NO change” to the retirement savings accounts known as 401(k)s roiled the tax debate. House Ways and Means chairman Kevin Brady of Texas left the door open to changes to the retirement accounts, despite Trump’s tweet. That prompted a reversal from Trump who then suggested 401(k) account changes could be used as a “negotiating” tool as lawmakers craft the tax plan.
House Republicans are expected to roll out details of their tax plan Wednesday. Asked if he was concerned the new proposal would prompt further presidential intervention, House Speaker Paul Ryan quickly noted Trump would be half a world away — on an international trip, with stops in China and South Korea.
"He's going to be in Asia, number one,” Ryan said, laughing. “No I'm kidding. That was kind of a joke. I was sort of joking on that one." Trump departs two days after the bill’s unveiling.
Ryan said legislative tax writers are working “very, very closely with the White House so that there will be no surprises from our partners either in the White House or in the Senate.” Trump’s legislative affairs director, Marc Short, told reporters at the Capitol he was confident that Republicans are unified.
The White House has defended its relationship with congressional Republicans, pointing to Trump’s appearance in the Rose Garden earlier this month with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who said the two share an agenda.
“That’s a pretty clear indication of where his support lies and what we're working to do,” Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said.
The problems are in the details, the sort of details that traditionally make crafting major legislation difficult.
Congress has a host of divisive matters on its calendar, chiefly passing a new spending deal by Dec. 8 to keep the federal government running.
Complicating matters, Democrats, whom the Republicans may need to pass a spending bill, are expected to push first for a solution to Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programs, which allows young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children to stay in the U.S.
Democrats also want any year-end agreement to resolve the dispute over the payment of health care subsidies to insurers.
Lawmakers also face pressure to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which expired earlier this month. And the White House has promised a third disaster relief bill for states and U.S. territories affected by a string of hurricanes and wildfires.
Resolving all these issues usually means not only compromise, but someone to act as the chief deal maker. Usually that person is the president.
The big difference this year from others: The president is not likely to be a big factor in shaping the legislation, and he further weakened his legislative stature with last week’s brawls.
“It would be really good if the president would just sort of step aside because he’s already taking things off the table,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., another retiring member who this week unloaded on Trump.
Corker, who chairs the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggested the White House is largely irrelevant. Trump, he said, has simply adopted the Republican agenda, rather than the other way around.
“This is what Republicans in Congress have wanted for a long, long time,” Corker said of cutting taxes. “This has nothing to do with the president. This is an effort that Congress needs to succeed at. The president will sign it.”
Ironically, Trump may get wins despite himself, said Norman Ornstein, a congressional analyst at Washington’s center-right American Enterprise Institute. He noted both Corker and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who castigated Trump as well as his colleagues as he announced this week that he wouldn’t run for re-election, have largely voted with Trump.
“It’s hard to imagine a greater level of dysfunction, but in the process but they’ve gotten judges and a Cabinet confirmed,” he said. “They know they have a president who cares little for the details and who only wants victories and will sign what they can put in front of them.”
Who will push the senators to compromise? There’s no easy answer. Senators instead said things would work out, though they lacked specifics.
“There have been times when it has been a weapon of mass distraction, when it gets over the top but that hasn’t happened often,” Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said. “I really do think most senators are like me, they just say ‘Okay, it is what it is, and let me get back to my business.’”