Sens. Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray went to bed Tuesday evening thinking they had hit a home run. The duo at the helm of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee did the seemingly impossible and reached bipartisan consensus on a bill to help stabilize the insurance markets that had the support of President Donald Trump.
Then came the tweet.
At 9:41 a.m. Wednesday, Trump posted that he “can never support bailing out ins co’s who have made a fortune w/ O’Care.”
I am supportive of Lamar as a person & also of the process, but I can never support bailing out ins co’s who have made a fortune w/ O’Care.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 18, 2017
“If he wants to improve it, we certainly can,” Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, said of the president’s position. “It would be normal for a president of the United States, first, to read a proposal before he supports it. And second, to try to improve it or change it.”
The new normal
The cycle is becoming the norm for lawmakers.
Members from both parties say they will leave a meeting or end a phone call with Trump thinking the president is supportive of their viewpoint, only to find out — sometimes just hours later — that he has veered significantly from an earlier position.
The erratic, unpredictable and sometimes conflicting viewpoints of the former reality television star have made reaching a bipartisan deal on contentious issues such as health care and immigration even more difficult.
“If the White House were very consistent supporting or opposing something, it would make things easier,” Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson said.
Take the recent deal Trump struck with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on the issue of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, that protects from deportation undocumented immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children.
The two Democratic leaders left a dinner with Trump and top White House aides thinking they had reached a compromise to advance bipartisan legislation from Illinois Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin and South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham with enhanced border security measures.
Then, after input from key advisers and GOP members such as Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, the administration circulated a list of demands for the immigration deal that ran in stark contrast to the prior one hashed out by the trio.
“He’s the obstructionist in chief because he can’t stick to a position, he can’t go forward when he thinks something is the right thing to do. And if he keeps backing off and changing on everything, his presidency will be an utter failure,” Schumer told reporters Wednesday.
It’s not just Democrats who have experienced the whiplash. When House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell traveled with Schumer and Pelosi to the White House in early September, Trump threw a curve ball and announced support for a plan pushed by the Democrats to fund the government until December.
For a chamber that operates on bipartisanship, the constant flip-flopping from the administration is maddening to senators and driving a wedge into already fragile negotiations on several topics.
“It makes it more difficult to do legislation on anything,” Delaware Democrat Chris Coons said. “To have a president who forcefully lays out a particular position and then in the same day takes an opposite position, it makes it very complicated.”
And it’s not just affecting bipartisan work. It also contributed to the failure of the GOP effort to repeal the 2010 health care law.
After House Republicans were able to cobble together enough votes to pass their own repeal bill after weeks of negotiations that stretched an already thin bond within the conference, Trump called the proposal “mean” and urged the Senate to fix it.
There are concerns that the same could happen with the effort to overhaul the U.S. tax code.
Some Republican members have started to simply ignore the White House until it is absolutely vital.
“It shouldn’t really impact what we are doing here in the House and the Senate,” Johnson said. “We’re a coequal branch of government. It’s our job to actually craft the legislation that we can pass to get a result. And then the president can weigh in.”
Senate GOP leaders expressed a similar viewpoint.
“Members of Congress have complained that Congress has given up too much of its authority to the executive branch,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said. “We don’t need the permission of the executive branch to do our jobs.”
As Republicans seek to achieve some sort of victory in the final weeks of the year to help numb several months of disappointment, senators privately say Trump’s willingness to almost revel in the unpredictable creates a sense of unease that complicates major policy efforts.
Some, however, welcome the president’s evolving view of certain issues when it aligns with their own, most recently with the bipartisan health care plan Alexander and Murray crafted.
“I just retweeted President Trump a few minutes ago,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said of the president’s post disparaging the Alexander-Murray measure.