Republican congressional leaders have also backed away from calls by Donald Trump to temporarily prevent Muslim refugees from entering the United States, excluding such language from the budget bill passed Friday.
It’s an unexpected turn of events. Rather than worrying about an over-reaching Congress endangering their party’s presidential nominee, Republicans now fear their 2016 nominee will jeopardize majorities in the Senate and possibly the House.
The evidence of the disconnect was in sharp relief on Friday.
In Washington, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wisc.) began the day by releasing a beaming new video promising “A Confident America” in 2016 under Republican leadership. At the same time, Trump issued a statement singling out Ryan for showing “absolutely no budget discipline” and creating an atmosphere where “the American people are suffering at the hands of their own government.”
The contrast is striking, and oddly enough, it’s the opposite of what Republicans feared a year ago when they recaptured the Senate and claimed both chambers of Congress for the first time since 2006. On the eve of becoming Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) famously told The Washington Post his main political goal was for the GOP-controlled Congress to not be “scary,” so the Republican presidential candidates would not have to answer for any government shutdowns or defaults on the federal debt.
Twelve months later, McConnell grimaces each time he’s asked about the tenor of the GOP presidential campaign. “That’s something I can’t control,” McConnell said last week in a Post interview, deflecting any discussion about the campaign rhetoric. “I’m not going to get into the presidential race. I’m talking about the things that I have some control over.”
Republican presidential contenders like Trump seem more than happy to bash the $1.7 trillion budget deal that passed Congress with hefty Republican support at the end of this week.
That deal included a $620 billion tax package that made permanent credits for research and development, adults with children and the earned income tax for the working poor, as well as the $1.1 trillion spending plan for federal agencies in 2016 that also lifted the prohibition on U.S. oil being exported.
All but three House Republicans supported the tax package Thursday, and 150 of them — about 60 percent of the caucus — backed the spending plan Friday. The Senate vote was more complicated because the two plans were merged into one enormous package, but a slim majority of McConnell’s Republican ranks still voted for the measure.
Voting against the plan were Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), each of whom is running for president. Additionally, 11 Republicans facing re-election next year in conservative-leaning states, where a primary challenge might loom, opposed the plan. Those who voted against it included Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who opposed the deal even though he wrote and took credit for large chunks of it as a senior member of the Appropriations Committee.
The opposition of the presidential contenders and GOP senators facing potential primary challenges reflects where they believe the conservative base stands, intent on waging a fight against Obama at all costs, even if it means a government shutdown. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is polling around 1 percent in the presidential campaign, was the only Oval Office aspirant to vote “yes” on the tax and budget package.
Even 2016 candidates with some establishment backing rejected the deal. “Washington’s leadership has created another massive spending bill in secret and rammed it through Congress, hoping that the American people don’t notice or have become numb to this kind of business as usual,” Rubio, who did not bother to attend the session, said in a statement.
Trump said Republicans should have been willing to stand firm and shut down the government to force more spending restraint and win policy priorities, such as defunding Planned Parenthood and barring Syrian refugees. “In order to avoid a government shutdown, a cowardly threat from an incompetent President, the elected Republicans in Congress threw in the towel and showed absolutely no budget discipline,” he said.
Republicans on Capitol Hill went down that road in 2013, instigating a 16-day shutdown in a battle over funding Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and most have vowed to never again place their party in such politically perilous terrain. By the time the shutdown ended, the Republican Party brand had hit its lowest levels in decades, only to be rescued by the Obama administration’s botched ACA rollout.
“I think what Congress did today, politically, was effectively take itself out of next year’s campaign,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee. “I think a functioning Congress is actually good news for all incumbents and good news for the presidential candidates, certainly on the Republican side. The last thing you want is a dysfunctional Congress while you’re running for president.”
What remains to be seen is the effect a dysfunctional presidential campaign might have on congressional campaigns next year. Ryan and McConnell have gone to great lengths to avoid commenting on Trump’s latest attack or the newest fight between Cruz and Rubio over their differences on immigration and national security.
In a valedictory press conference after Friday’s vote, McConnell again declined to comment specifically on the presidential campaign.
He did, however, expand on his plan to keep the Senate majority by not nominating “any more Christine O’Donnells, Sharron Angles, Richard Mourdocks or Todd Akins” — references to past Senate candidates from, respectively, Delaware, Nevada, Indiana and Missouri. Each lost what was considered a very winnable race after making very conservative statements well outside the political mainstream of their state.
Next November, 24 Republican-held seats are up for grabs in Senate races, including seven in states that Obama won in 2008 and 2012; just 10 Democratic seats are at stake. That means McConnell wants a nominee who can appeal to voters in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, or else his will be a short run as majority leader.
“We’d like to have a nominee who can carry purple states. Because unless the nominee for president can carry purple states, he’s not going to get elected,” McConnell said.