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Trump Drama Imperils GOP Legislative Agenda

Congressional Republicans need a strong executive to push their policies across the finish line, and Trump is losing clout on Capitol Hill.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump, flanked by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, and House Speaker Paul Ryan oapplaud in the Rose Garden of the White Houseon May 4 after the House pushed through a health care bill.Evan Vucci / AP

The drama enveloping President Donald Trump is threatening the legislative agenda of congressional Republicans who need a strong executive to push their policies across the finish line.

With nearly daily revelations in the investigations into Russia's interference into last year's presidential election and potential ties to the Trump campaign, the president is beginning to lose clout on Capitol Hill.

"I think the legislative agenda has pretty much ground to a halt until you get the Comey episode dealt with," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. When asked why, he said, "Because you keep asking me about this and nothing else."

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, agrees.

"There's no doubt that this cloud is impacting everything else, and I think the White House acknowledged that," said Rubio said on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday.

Rubio and Graham are two of a handful of Republicans who have publicly fretted about the impact of a White House in constant turmoil on the party's legislative goals. But congressional leaders, charged with keeping the troops in line, insist that the GOP is moving forward on issues of health care, taxes and less high-profile conservative legislation.

House Speaker Paul Ryan read off a to-do list for the House last week, which includes work on “closing the skill gap, on streamlining I.T. to get waste out of government, make the Pentagon more efficient, get tax reform moving."

"These are things that really affect people in their daily lives. We're working on this,” he told reporters. “So I just think it's very important that people know that we can walk and chew gum at the same gum.”

But holding hearings and writing legislation isn't the same as marshaling the political capital to undertake difficult votes. For that, it's vital to have a strong president to keep the party unified and bring along reluctant colleagues. A president unpopular with the public or with diminished credibility is unlikely to deliver necessary votes from a Republican lawmaker facing a difficult re-election.

In fact, splitting with an unpopular president could be politically beneficial for some. And Democrats are quick to exploit those dynamics.

When Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, was asked if he thinks the Republican agenda is compromised, he immediately laughed and said, "Yeah."

"What they were trying to do is terribly unpopular in the first place. To try and take health care away from 24 million Americans in the middle of a Constitutional process — it was already hard. Now it's darn near impossible," he said.

Related: Conservative Media’s Alternative Take on Trump and Russia

Trump’s approvals are already the lowest of any president in his first several months. In the latest NBC News/WSJ poll, just 41 percent of Republicans approve of Trump, and that was before last week's dizzying stream of revelations about the Russia investigation and the circumstances surrounding the president's firing of former FBI Director James Comey.

Just two weeks ago, Trump showed how critical his involvement can be to getting legislation across the finish line. With the House GOP health care bill hanging in the balance, Trump executed a full-court press, summoning members to the Oval Office, working the phones and cutting deals to satisfy various factions in an effort to get reluctant members on board.

The House passed the bill by one vote, and House leaders gave Trump the bulk of the credit.

“You know, I've only been through a few presidents, but I've never seen someone so hands on. I walked into my office yesterday morning, and they say the president's calling again,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said at during a celebratory news conference in the Rose Garden.

“The president gives me a list of who he thinks would best to talk to, on the list, and he was right. And, Mr. President, they all voted for the bill,” McCarthy said, acknowledging Trump's ability to swing votes.

But the Senate is struggling to craft its version of health care and both chambers are hoping to pass tax reform this year, as well as a budget for 2018. Those efforts are politically perilous for many members in both the House and Senate, and even under the best of circumstances, it wouldn't be easy for leaders to muster enough support to pass them.

Many GOP members will have to take uncomfortable votes they would prefer to avoid.

“I think the incompetence over [at the White House] makes things awkward at times and senators won’t hesitate to exercise their independence, but they’d like to see their party see big things,” a Republican strategist, who asked not to be identified to speak candidly, said.

Another Republican Senate aide said that support for Trump has a limit.

“We just keep pushing our agenda until he crosses a legal line, then all bets are off,” the aide said.

Policy-minded Republicans are working to ensure that Trump doesn’t get in the way of their priorities. The Senate is currently crafting a health care bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. House Republicans, who recently passed their version of a health care overhaul, is now working on a tax reform plan.

“It’s to the advantage of Republicans in Congress and the administration to have the focal point on hefty policies like tax reform, health care, the budget because those are detailed policy question with big implications for the country. So I think when you’re looking at those, it’s not really a question of standing by an administration, it’s about self-described priorities to the American public,” said Tim Phillips, chief operating operator of Americans for Prosperity, a policy and politics-focused group financed by the Koch brothers' donor network.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who rarely hints at any problems, showed some signs of concern this week.

"I think it would be helpful to have less drama emanating from the White House," he said.