Congress Leaves Town Exhausted, Unsuccessful and Frustrated

Image: Senate Majority Leader Republican Mitch McConnell
Senate Majority Leader Republican Mitch McConnell (C) walks to his office after leaving the Senate floor following votes on a package of nominations, on Capitol Hill on August 3, 2017 in Washington. fileMichael Reynolds / EPA file

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By Leigh Ann Caldwell

WASHINGTON — Congress is ready for a break.

For Republicans flush with election victory, 2017 was supposed to be a year of winning, as then-candidate Donald Trump often said, for an ambitious legislative agenda on Capitol Hill. Seven months in, it hasn't worked out the way they envisioned.

Republican leaders have failed to repeal and replace Obamacare, they are behind schedule on reforming the nation’s tax system and they haven't even broached plans to boost the nation's infrastructure — three of their top legislative priorities.

Now they are leaving town for their annual August recess, feeling frustrated, exhausted and disappointed that a rare opportunity to pass their agenda is being squandered. They have control of Congress and the White House but little to show for it so far.

On top of their own inability to make progress, there's a hefty dose of Trump fatigue as Republican leaders have had to maneuver alongside a drama-filled White House led by a president who has shown little interest in the details of policy or loyalty to them or the party.

While they have seen a few successes, namely the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice, the past seven months of intense action with little progress has taken a toll on those who serve in Congress. Over the past week, energy was noticeably low on Capitol Hill. Normally enthusiastic staffers, walking through the halls on the heels of their bosses, whispered to reporters, saying they really didn’t want to be there — or they didn’t want their bosses to be there.

One Republican staffer on the Senate health committee said that she has never been so mentally depleted. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said that while he’s excited to head home to North Carolina for the month, it’s the staff who especially needs the break, noting that for every hour a member works, the staff works five more.

Democrats haven't made things easy, purposely slowing floor activity to a near stand-still while Republicans tried to dismantle Obamacare, the Democrats' biggest legislative achievement in decades, further complicating Republican efforts to help the president put his nominees in place. And it's made the opposition as weary as the majority party.

“I think we all need a break from each other. I think everybody needs to recharge their batteries,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. “I think it was especially frustrating for folks who don’t mind the work but want to see the product, and this was not a productive first half of the year by any measure.”

The prolonged fight over reforming health care took a lot out of Republicans who are still trying to fulfill a seven-year campaign promise of repealing Obamacare — a pledge that no Democrat would participate in. After months of work, they haven't come to agreement among themselves.

“Is it harder than we thought? Obviously I think health care ended up being harder than we thought,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.V.

Health care’s woes have complicated the remainder of the party’s agenda. They face a fall of must-pass legislation, including lifting the debt ceiling, funding the government, reauthorization of the low-income children’s health insurance program, known as S-CHIP — all of which are supposed to be completed by September 30.

“We’re way behind where we should be,” Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., admitted this week. “It’s been, I believe, a learning experience for Republicans to understand that they have a responsibility for governing.”

Republicans, who have control of both legislative chambers and the White House for the first time since President George W. Bush’s first term, miscalculated the complexities of governing and unifying a party from diverse states, especially alongside a president that is neither a traditional Republican nor a politician and is brand new to the machinations of Washington.

Trump has been harshly critical of Senate Republicans since they failed to pass health care, attempting to give them directions on how to legislate and blaming them for foreign policy challenges.

But the advice hasn’t necessarily been welcome on Capitol Hill and has done little to advance legislation or solve intra-party differences. What it has done, however, is shown the president’s lack of understanding of the legislative process, especially in the Senate.

“I think it’s naïve to suggest that you just are able to move through big ticket things in very short order. It requires a lot of work,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, one of the three Republicans who helped to sink the GOP health care effort. “There’s good work around here. But again it’s tough stuff. Just keep at it.”

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the GOP conference chairman, says their relationship with the president is “evolving," and he expects better outcomes in the future.

“We understand that in order for us to get accomplishments for the American people we have to get bills on the president's desk that he can sign into law. So it’s a relationship that is a work in progress, but I guess my hope will be that we’ll get better outcomes than we did on health care.”

Republicans hope that both they and the president have learned valuable lessons as the next several months pile up with must-pass legislation and the desire to take up tax reform, a complicated task that took five years to write and pass in the 1980s.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said that he hopes the administration has found its “sea legs.”

“This is a non-traditional president and he’s bringing in a lot of non-traditional, non-government folks. So for them, they’re learning their role, their spot, their staff,” Lankford said. “My hope is that’s practice, so they can get us down to the fall, so everybody gets a little greater expertise.”

The fissures between Republicans and the White House continue to grow, however, as time goes on. Congress passed a bill to sanction Russia despite the White House’s opposition. Republican and Democratic senators have introduced legislation to block Trump’s ability to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Members of both parties are considering a new authorization of military force, which would give Congress oversight of military intervention. And the Senate won’t formally adjourn during the month of August to prevent Trump from sidestepping the Senate and making any personnel appointments when they are out of town.

“I hope (he learned) we’re a co-equal branch of government and we’ll stand up to our prerogatives,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. “No president should expect for any senator or member of the House to be a rubber stamp. We have our own franchise.”

Republicans can point to some accomplishments in the first seven months. They saw the confirmation of conservative Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch — a huge priority for the Republican base. They also effectively rolled back more than a dozen regulations from President Barack Obama’s term.

The last day of the session this month was their most productive yet. Democrats released their hold on President Donald Trump’s nominations, doubling the number of appointees to his ranks to 122. And they passed 17 pieces of legislation (not including symbolic resolutions) on Friday in a last-minute, bipartisan legislative blitz.

Congress is scheduled to be back in September for a busy fall to an already tiring year. “It’s certainly been an interesting 2017 as it relates to policy, rancor and all the issues,” said Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.