Less than a year after Republicans gained control of Washington with President Trump amid heady promises of action, political pressures from multiple directions are bearing down on House and Senate lawmakers whose stalled agenda threatens to exact a toll heavy enough to endanger their majorities.
The messy dilemma congressional Republicans face was starkly visible at two venues in recent days, where powerful factions within the party vented their anger.
At one — a gathering at an expensive New York hotel of wealthy donors aligned with the conservative Koch brothers — frustrations ran so high over the GOP’s inability to deliver on campaign promises that some warned of a wipeout in the 2018 midterm elections. Donors suggested that their financial backing for Republican campaigns could dry up if lawmakers fail to make progress, particularly on tax cuts.
At a conservative religious summit in Washington, meantime, a similar displeasure was spilling from Stephen K. Bannon as the former White House advisor declared “war” on GOP incumbents who fail to adequately back the president.
All year, the Republican majority in Congress has shown an inability to turn its campaign slogans into laws. Efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare collapsed amid party infighting. Republicans are struggling to draft a promised tax overhaul.
Now Trump has made lawmakers’ jobs even harder by punting to Congress some of the most serious policy questions of his administration — on healthcare, immigration and foreign policy with Iran — with potentially dire political and practical outcomes if lawmakers do not act.
Many of those issues seem likely to converge in early December, when Congress faces a deadline to pass legislation needed to keep government agencies from shutting down. On both sides, lawmakers anticipate that must-pass legislation could become the vehicle to carry other policies.
“We’ve got to deliver results,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told the donors at the Koch-aligned Seminar Network’s 2018 strategy session.
“If we get our act together, pass a big tax cut, honor our promise to repeal and replace Obamacare, the economy gets moving, we could have a phenomenal election in 2018,” he said.
If not, “we could face a bloodbath. I think that we have a potential of seeing a Watergate-level blowout,” Cruz said, referring to the 1974 election, three months after President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation, in which Democrats ended up with a two-thirds majority in the House and 61 votes in the Senate.
Cruz, a one-time outlier in the party, seems to be one of the few Republicans able to straddle both the Koch and Bannon camps. He sat at the head table with David Koch during a dinner at the donors’ event and was singled out by Bannon as the one incumbent Republican senator who would be spared from his war.
For other lawmakers, however, the GOP dilemma has become an existential question. The party remains deeply split between its establishment class — including billionaires Charles and David Koch, whose groups declined to support Trump for president — and its pro-Trump nationalists, who blame Congress for the president’s inability to enact his agenda.
The Koch groups have promised to spend up to $400 million this election cycle on policy advocacy and political campaigns. Meantime, Bannon has tried to position himself as the leader of the Trump wing of the party and has pledged to back primary challenges aimed at ousting incumbent Republicans who do not share his ideology.
“Right now, it’s a season of war against a GOP establishment,” Bannon said as he paced the stage at the Values Voter Summit.
In the past two weeks, Trump has moved notably to the right — eliminating subsidies under the Affordable Care Act and demanding a long list of immigration policies designed to cut both legal and illegal entries in exchange for legislation protecting from deportation the young immigrants known as “Dreamers.”
Bannon credits that shift to the power of the populist, nationalist base, citing the Alabama Senate primary victory last month of fiery evangelical Roy Moore over GOP Sen. Luther Strange, the appointed incumbent who both the GOP establishment and Trump backed.
"Every day is like Christmas Day now," Bannon said. "This is the Trump program. This is what we always wanted."
Those moves have brought protests from Republican establishment figures.
“I'm very disappointed in the direction of the Republican Party,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“The Republican Party can't go out and start grabbing people out of their homes who have been really good people living in this country and shipping them out of this country willy-nilly. Or taking away healthcare for millions of people. This is not what the party is,” he said.
“Just because there's some activists that scream and yell, whatever, that's not where the bulk of the people are.”
But Bannon clearly dismisses that idea. With more upsets in mind, he flared warnings at Republican Sens. Dean Heller of Nevada, John Barrasso of Wyoming and Deb Fischer of Nebraska, claiming their failure to adequately defend Trump.
A Bannon-aligned PAC which supported Moore is set to announce its next round of favored challengers this week.
“They’re coming for you,” Bannon warned.
Longtime GOP donor Art Pope downplayed the intraparty fighting, noting that, like Bannon, he too has supported outlier candidates, including then-tea party favorite Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who have gone on to become influential senators.
“This is not new, having Republican primaries,” he told reporters at the Koch event.
That’s little comfort for existing incumbents, however. And the threat of primaries could imperil the party further if lawmakers facing reelection rush rightward toward policies that are unable to pass Congress or win widespread voter approval.
The top priority for congressional Republican leaders is a tax-cut bill on which Congress has struggled to turn Trump’s vague framework into actual legislation.
That task has gotten harder now that Trump has loaded the schedule with additional issues.
Lawmakers now have 60 days to consider reimposing sanctions on Iran after Trump’s decision not to certify the country’s compliance with a nuclear non-proliferation agreement. They also must act, possibly by year end, on legislation to protect Dreamers or risk seeing more than 700,000 young immigrants lose their jobs and face deportation. Trump has announced that the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protected them, will begin expiring March 5.
At the same time, Trump’s decision to end the Affordable Care Act’s insurance subsidies for some low-income Americans leaves Congress to handle an additional threat — sharply higher premiums and reduced availability of insurance, with the biggest impact falling in states represented by Republican lawmakers.
In all, the next two months, as Congress races toward an early December deadline, could be the point at which the fate of the GOP majority gets determined — for good or ill.
“People double-down on success, they don’t double-down on failure,” said Chris Wright, an oil-and-gas company CEO in Denver attending the seminar. If failure occurs, he said, “Republicans will pay a heavy price in the midterm elections.”