As a presidential deal-maker, Donald Trump is, in Texas parlance, all hat and no cattle. It’s a big reason that, aside from disaster relief, not much is likely to get done this month or this year.
To the shock of fellow Republicans, Trump gave Democrats all they wanted to get a temporary extension of the debt ceiling and government funding and the first installment of huge assistance for hurricane victims. His claim that this augurs well for "much stronger coming together" isn’t serious.
Trump cut this small deal to punish House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom he blames for this year’s dismal legislative record, while simultaneously bragging he has gotten more done than any than any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. The next day Trump gloated about the GOP leaders’ discomfort and the media reviews.
To many congressional Republicans, this was another indication that the president doesn’t care about the party, and that his word is transactional, as are his principles. It wasn’t too long ago that Trump praised House Republicans, at a White House ceremony, for passing an Obamacare replacement. He had little idea what was in it, and when the blowback came, he assailed the bill as "mean."
A sworn enemy of personal responsibility, Trump blames Ryan for passing a health-care bill, which he’d embraced, that couldn’t get a majority in the other chamber. He blames McConnell for delivering, with little help from the White House, only 49 of 52 Republican senators. He also faulted them for not linking an increase in the debt limit with a popular veterans bill. Whatever your view of the Kentucky senator, he’ll forget more about legislative strategy than Trump, the faux deal-maker, ever will know.
Some small deals might be made. And, conceivably, a bigger one would eliminate the anachronistic debt-ceiling measure altogether. But that will be tough to achieve, and polarized politics make more substantive bipartisan accords almost impossible.
Republicans, while feeling some heat from the Trump base, know he can’t be trusted and will be reluctant to go out on limb, which the president is just as likely to chop off. Democrats already are devising ads against lawmakers who voted for the Obamacare replacement, citing how "mean" the president said it was.
Then there’s the Trump-inspired chatter about more deals with Democrats: a massive infrastructure measure and a compromise on liberalized immigration, coupled with Trump’s demand to build a wall along the Mexican border. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer thinks he knows how to manipulate this president.
But the ability of Schumer or most other Democrats to make deals with Trump is severely limited by the revulsion much of their party’s base feels toward the president. Congressional Democrats trust him even less than Republicans do.
There’s another problem with this Trump-Democratic scenario: Republicans hold the majority in Congress. They control the agenda and the calendar.
Republicans are now juggling with four distinct internal blocs: traditional conservatives represented by the leadership; the take-no-prisoners right-wing lawmakers; a small band of moderates who on a few issues, like health care, make the difference, and the Trump party led by a president with a reverence for self and no institutional loyalty.
That is not an environment where Republican congressional leaders will facilitate measures favored by Democrats.
Two of the biggest tests, starting this month, will be taxes and health care. Senate Republican leaders have to decide whether they want to try again with a new Obamacare repeal-and-replace plan or go along with bipartisan modifications that Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democrat Patty Murray of Washington are crafting. These would continue the Affordable Health Care Act’s cost-sharing subsidies, while giving states more flexibility.
The challenge? The replacement is as deeply flawed as earlier versions, while the bipartisan initiative will infuriate the right-wing base. Republicans have to choose which route in the next three weeks. They also face the need to extend the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Tax reform won’t be easier. Conceivably a number of Democrats might support a modest bill with rate cuts offset by closing tax loopholes or preferences. But that’s unacceptable to most Republicans, who want much bigger cuts.
Other issues will surface and one sure bet is that the administration and Congress will provide funds for the costliest-ever disaster cleanups. By the end of December, the bottom line of the first year of the Trump revolution might be higher spending, with limited, if any, tax cuts and Obamacare left largely intact.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.