They broke it. Now they own it.
Republicans have won total control over the federal government for the first time in a decade. Two interconnected revolutions have shattered the old order in Washington and brought the country to a fresh political juncture: The tea party movement that gave a new breed of confrontational conservative decisive sway on Capitol Hill starting six years ago, and now the extraordinary triumph of the infuriated outsider personified with the election of Donald J. Trump.
The congressional wing of the GOP and the nation’s 45th president will face an enormously difficult task starting in January. They will have to blend their surprisingly divergent priorities, and their emphatically dissonant ideologies, so that they can set about fulfilling the fundamental promise they do agree on — putting Washington back in good working order.
The new generation of Republicans who now assert the party’s balance of power on the Hill, and the Republican who just laid claim to the White House without any prior experience in government whatsoever, all got to where they are by railing against dysfunctional business as usual — a capital where deadlock is an acceptable default setting, meaning little gets done in the eyes of the average American.
Now Trump and the 115th Congress will have just 22 months, until the next midterm election, to prove their capacity for breaking the gridlock they all ran against.
The angry electorate would seem to have no patience whatsoever for anything else. And the GOP’s unified control over the levers of policymaking power leaves them no excuse for falling short.
But Trump and the Capitol majority’s top leaders made only balky initial moves toward their shared goal on Wednesday, ending months of mutually assured distance mixed with flashes of contempt.
In proclaiming his decisive upset victory, the president-elect did not cite Congress or its GOP bosses as future helpmates, instead promising more broadly to seek bipartisan cooperation for “the urgent task of rebuilding our nation and renewing the American dream” so that “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”
Mitch McConnell, who will remain Senate majority leader for a second Congress, told reporters that Trump “has a significant opportunity to bring our nation together” and, to help him make the most of it, “we should look forward and not backward and rehash and relitigate the various debates we had, both internally and with the Democrats over the past year.”
The most effusive promises of collaboration came from the least likely of the three, Speaker Paul D. Ryan, who managed to avoid being seen in public with Trump throughout a campaign in which he routinely criticized Trump’s temperament and questioned his commitment to conservatism.
“He just earned a mandate and we now just have a unified Republican government,” he said of Trump at a news conference in his native Janesville, Wisconsin. “The opportunity is to go big, to go bold and to get things done.”
Ryan said that, after a pair of “fantastic conversations” overnight, he was confident Trump would support his plan to remain at the helm of the House and vowed that, in return, he would “make sure that when his hand comes off the Bible, when he’s sworn in as president, that we are hitting the ground running.”
Beyond the leaders, Trump has to deal with members of the congressional GOP rank-and-file who had repudiated him as the nominee — including 13 percent of the re-elected House members and at least 11 of next year’s senators. On Wednesday, he received conciliatory public congratulations from five of them: John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mike Lee of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Dan Sullivan of Alaska.
Who’ll drive the agenda?
A likely initial area of agreement will be the Supreme Court.
Trump’s social conservatism may remain suspect to millions of his own supporters on the cultural right, thanks to his evolving views on many issues dear to them during his pre-political career in real estate. But he has been very specific in producing a roster of 21 potential nominees to fill the seat left open with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, all of them designed to allay concerns of strict constructionists.
Senate Republicans are very likely to vote as a block for any of those picks. And the Democrats, who spent all year labeling the GOP as obstructionists for not even considering filling the vacancy, would be hard-pressed to mount a filibuster of their own, absent very solid evidence that Trump’s nominee was unqualified or espoused views way outside the judicial mainstream.
A 52 percent majority in Tuesday’s exit poll said the economy was their top concern, so the pressure will be on for the new president to come up with a plan for job creation that the congressional leadership will buy into.
McConnell looks to remain principally a parliamentary mechanic, working to muster the votes to advance whatever the new president proposes. Ryan will want to hold onto his reputation as the intellectual leader of the GOP, certainly at the Capitol, if not in all the nation.
He spent much of his energy this year formulating his “A Better Way” legislative agenda in anticipation of this opportunity. He now faces the task of persuading the new president to embrace much of the Ryan workbook as his own. (On this front, members of the House GOP leadership will be counting on the peacemaking prowess of their old congressional colleague Mike Pence, the Indiana governor who’s now vice president-elect.)
The most obvious area of agreement would be on the most ambitious possible goal — overhauling and simplifying the tax code for the first time in three decades. This was Ryan’s highest aspiration as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, and Trump has talked boldly about streamlining the IRS code along with delivering an enormous tax cut.
But an early friction point appeared Wednesday, when Trump singled out for special mention in his acceptance speech his plan for creating “millions” of jobs through as $5 trillion long-term federal investment in public works, which he says could be paid for with tax incentives for the builders. But a few weeks ago, Ryan dismissed the proposal, saying it would be unworkably expensive especially in light of a multiyear infrastructure package enacted last year.
Plenty of possible conflict
There’s also no immediate agreement between Trump and the congressional mainstream on so many other aspects of economic and fiscal policy.
The president-elect has expressed little interest in holding down the size of budget deficits and has said he wants nothing to with curtailing the growth of Social Security and Medicare, the entitlement programs that are the biggest drivers of long-term fiscal imbalance.
Congressional Republicans, in contrast, are bound together as much as anything by a desire to shrink the size of government and slow the growth of the national debt. Their ranks are dominated by budget hawks unlikely to countenance Trump’s desire to boost spending on veterans and lift the caps on defense spending.
Trump and the congressional GOP have both adopted the repeal-and-replace mantra to describe their approach to the 2010 health care law. The first part should be straightforward to accomplish, given the power of the majority to push budgetary bills to enactment under the filibuster-proof procedure known as reconciliation.
But Trump has not signed on to any clear plan for a medical insurance system to supplant the health law, let alone the House GOP approach centered on tax incentives and nationalization of the insurance market, which could threaten existing coverage for some 15 million.
As in so many areas, Trump’s campaign was minimally invested in developing detailed plans for carrying out his so flatly stated aspiration to “make America great again.”
And on the two lynchpins of his campaign, immigration and trade, the boldness and simplicity of his ideas are not in sync with the thinking of the congressional GOP conservative mainstream.
Their focus on curbing discretionary spending guarantees significant opposition to spending tens of billions of dollars over a decade constructing the impenetrable wall Trump envisions along the Mexican border.
And many in his own party remain wary of Trump’s plan to ditch current trade liberalization agreements or impose massive tariffs for reordering the balance of trade, starting with China and Mexico.
And, even if Congress goes along with igniting the sort of retaliatory trade war Trump would be tempting, very few economists believe the end result would be a widespread reopening of the Rust Belt’s coal mines, steel mills and other crucibles of the last century’s manufacturing base.
Without the mills and mines restarted and without the wall appearing, will voters of two years from now be any less angry than they were this week?
If their fury is reignited, the contours of the 2018 political map might be the only thing that saves Republicans from a punishing backlash. A House majority for the GOP has been effectively locked in by the mapmakers until after the next census and the ensuing redistricting, while next time the GOP will be defending just eight seats versus 25 for the other side.