Last week, it was the role of Russia in the 2016 campaign that dominated the news; this week, with President Trump on his first overseas trip and largely sticking to his script, it’s more likely to be the substantive challenges facing congressional Republicans that will move to center stage in Washington.
As veteran Washington hand Billy Moore wrote on Sunday in his weekly note to clients, “The fiscal 2017 and 2018 budgets will collide this week when the Congressional Budget Office reveals its score of the fiscal 2017 House reconciliation bill to repeal Obamacare and the White House rolls out its fiscal 2018 budget proposal. If CBO determines the Obamacare legislation fails to reach its $2 billion savings goal, the House will need to retool and pass it again.”
While there is plenty of political danger in these moves for congressional Republicans up for reelection, at least these challenges are conventional in nature. They’re not at all like the surreal events of the past 10 days, when the capital was gripped by why President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, what was said in several meetings between the president and Comey, and what the President told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Amb. Sergey Kislyak.
Budget wrangling is the kind of problem lawmakers signed up for when they ran for House or Senate. Trying to figure out whether Trump is King Lear or an impulsive real-estate magnate is beyond their ken and best left to the lawyers.
As far as the conventional issues are going, Moore, a 35-year veteran of congressional battles, told his clients Thursday that, along with the anticipated CBO score this week, “White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney will testify on the fiscal 2018 budget, reported to cut trillions of dollars from safety net, education, agriculture, and environmental programs in order to increase military and veterans spending. The budget balances in 2028 by assuming $2 trillion in new revenue resulting from tax cuts.”
Moore went on to write that “House Republicans appear ready to retool the Trump budget to add Medicare cuts the president refused to include. Senate Republicans will probably ignore both the White House and House budgets and develop their own—similar to their efforts on Obamacare legislation. Tax cuts enabled by the budget will have to wait for the two chambers to reach agreement on a final 2018 fiscal blueprint.”
For Trump, this week is an opportunity to present himself as presidential, not the accidental president that his critics make him out to be. With expectations low, he can reassure the country by handling complicated issues and showing personal restraint on his overseas trip.
As it is, the White House and Republicans are taking heart that the GOP base has stuck with him so far. The daily tracking polls by the Gallup Organization show that for the week of May 15-21, 84 percent of Republicans approved of the job he was doing, compared with 31 percent of independents and just 7 percent of Democrats. Overall, the Democratic number can’t really get much lower, so the other two are the figures to watch. Among all adults, Trump’s approval rating was 38 percent, while 56 percent disapproved and 6 percent were undecided.
There is nothing that congressional Republicans can do about Trump’s tweets, off-the-cuff comments, and behavior seen as exotic for a president. The only somewhat controllable variable is whether they can get enough done legislatively that will allow them to hold their base and a reasonable number of independents. In most congressional districts and states where incumbent Republican senators are up for reelection, that will be sufficient, with the notable exception of the swing state Nevada, where Sen. Dean Heller is up for reelection and will need plenty of independent votes, and, to a lesser extent, Republican-leaning Arizona, where Sen. Jeff Flake will be on the ballot.
The immediate challenge for the GOP will come Thursday night, when the votes will be counted in the special congressional election for the at-large House seat vacated by Ryan Zinke’s appointment as secretary of the Interior. In theory, this should be an easy state for the GOP. Zinke won by nearly 16 points in 2016, 56.2 to 40.5 percent, and by 15 points in 2014, 55.4 to 40.4 percent. Trump beat Hillary Clinton there by more than 20 points last year, 56.2 to 35.7 percent, after Mitt Romney beat President Obama by nearly 14 points, 55.4 to 41.7 percent, in 2012.
Polls have shown the race tightening, however. Given the rural and small-town orientation of many Montana voters, a Democratic victory would be a thunderbolt, a single-digit Republican victory would be an ominous sign, and a double-digit GOP win would suggest, at least in this kind of district, that things are close to normal.