Scrambling to line up support for the Republican health-care bill, President Trump got on the phone Monday with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and urged him to back the measure.
The president’s personal plea was not enough. On Tuesday, Lee said he would vote against the bill. Senate GOP leaders later postponed the planned health-care vote because too many other Republican senators also opposed — for now, at least — legislation that would deliver on Trump’s campaign promise to scale back the law known as Obamacare.
Trump had hoped for a swift and easy win on health care this week. Instead he got a delay and a return to the negotiating table — the latest reminder of the limits of his power to shape outcomes at the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
History suggests that presidents who have governed successfully have been both revered and feared. But Republican fixtures in Washington are beginning to conclude that Trump may be neither, despite his mix of bravado, threats and efforts to schmooze with GOP lawmakers.
The president is the leader of his party, yet Trump has struggled to get Republican lawmakers moving in lockstep on health care and other major issues, leaving no signature legislation in his first five months in office. The confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch is his most-cited achievement to date.
“This president is the first president in our history who has neither political nor military experience, and thus it has been a challenge to him to learn how to interact with Congress and learn how to push his agenda better,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who opposes the current health-care bill.
The Senate could pass a revised version of the bill once lawmakers return from their July 4 recess and pick up deliberations. Still, some Republicans are willing to defy their president’s wishes — a dynamic that can be attributed in part to Trump’s singular status as a disrupter within his party.
“The president remains an entity in and of itself, not a part of the traditional Republican Party,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), a moderate who represents a district Trump lost by 16 percentage points. “I handle the Trump administration the same way I handled the Obama administration. When I agree, I work with them. When I oppose, I don’t.”
In private conversations on Capitol Hill, Trump is often not taken seriously. Some Republican lawmakers consider some of his promises — such as making Mexico pay for a new border wall — fantastical. They are exhausted and at times exasperated by his hopscotching from one subject to the next, chronicled in his pithy and provocative tweets. They are quick to point out how little command he demonstrates of policy. And they have come to regard some of his threats as empty, concluding that crossing the president poses little danger.
“The House health-care vote shows he does have juice, particularly with people on the right,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said. “The Senate health-care vote shows that people feel that health care is a defining issue and that it’d be pretty hard for any politician to push a senator into taking a vote that’s going to have consequences for the rest of their life.”
Asked if he personally fears Trump, Graham chuckled before saying, “No.”
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who has distanced himself from Trump on various issues, said few members of Congress fear permanent retaliation from the president.
“He comes from the private sector, where your business partner today isn’t always your business partner tomorrow,” Issa said. “Just because you’re one way today doesn’t mean you’re written off. That’s the ‘Art of the Deal’ side.”
One senior Republican close to both the White House and many senators called Trump and his political operation “a paper tiger,” noting how many GOP lawmakers feel free “to go their own way.”
“Members are political entrepreneurs, and they react to what they see in the political marketplace,” said the Republican, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid alienating the White House.
John Weaver, a GOP consultant and frequent Trump critic, was blunter in explaining why Trump has been unable to rule with a hammer. “When you have a 35 percent approval rating and you’re under FBI investigation, you don’t have a hammer,” he said, referring to the probe of possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Trump’s approval rating in Gallup’s daily tracking poll stood Tuesday at 39 percent, with 57 percent of Americans disapproving of his performance. But a significant portion of those supporters, particularly in red states and districts, still strongly back Trump.
White House officials contest the suggestion that Trump does not instill fear among fellow Republicans in Congress, though argue that their strategy is not one of fear.
“Our legislative strategy isn’t to scare people into passing bills,” principal deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in an email. “That doesn’t work for any president. We helped negotiate and facilitate the major breakthroughs on health care in the House and are doing the same in the Senate.”
The president’s political shop, meanwhile, is laboring to force more Republicans to bend to his wishes.
America First Policies, a Trump-allied super PAC staffed by former aides, launched a negative advertising effort against Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) after he spoke out against the bill Friday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) complained about the ads to White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, and the super PAC said Tuesday that it would pull the spots after Heller said he was open to further negotiations, according to two people familiar with the decision.
America First Policies has been mulling similar ads against other Republicans who have broken ranks, hoping to make lawmakers believe they will pay a price for betraying Trump and imperiling his agenda. The super PAC also is considering grass-roots campaigns across the country to mobilize Trump supporters in key states during the July 4 recess, as a way to ratchet up pressure on wavering lawmakers.
Trump allies have encouraged major GOP donors to reach out to senators who oppose the bill. Las Vegas casino moguls Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn have both spoken by phone with Heller to prod him along, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Trump has been hungry for a legislative policy victory on Capitol Hill, and he and his advisers see health care as the best chance for one this summer. The president is playing a less public role advocating for the legislation than he did leading up to this spring’s vote on a House bill, when he used his relationship with conservative members of the House Freedom Caucus to eventually bring them to the table.
In the Senate talks, Trump has been working largely behind the scenes to lobby senators, with personal phone calls and other entreaties. Unlike the House, where rank-and-file Republicans may be likely to follow Trump’s lead, the Senate naturally is a more independent institution.
Many senators fashion their own political brands and have outsize egos, and some Republicans ran away from Trump in their reelection races last year.
Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a new history of White House chiefs of staff, said the tumult inside Trump’s White House — and the president’s lack of a coherent message or vision for his policy agenda — inhibits his ability to enforce party discipline in Congress.
“Nothing instills fear on Capitol Hill like success, and all this White House has been able to do is one failure after another,” Whipple said. “There are just zero points on the board so far. Who’s going to be afraid of that?”
In the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency, Democrats on Capitol Hill largely stayed in line — in part because they saw Obama as a powerful political force and believed there were risks in breaking with him. During negotiations over the Affordable Care Act, Rahm Emanuel, then the White House chief of staff, served as the enforcer, reminding Blue Dog Democrats that they owed him their loyalty because he helped recruit and elect them as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Early in President George W. Bush’s tenure, fellow Republicans in Congress saw his White House as a finely tuned machine that could not be crossed.
“You never wanted to get on the wrong side of the Bush White House because the staff was disciplined, dedicated and extremely loyal to the president,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican operative. “If you crossed or undermined the president or his administration, the Bush die-hards would remember it forever.”
Trump’s lieutenants, by contrast, have struggled to force Republicans into line. In March, when House Republicans were slow to rally behind the health-care bill, White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon told Freedom Caucus members that they must stop waffling and vote for the legislation.
Bannon was immediately rebuffed by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), who has been in the House for more than three decades. Barton icily told Bannon that the only person who ordered him around was “my daddy” — and that his father was unsuccessful in doing so, according to several Republicans with knowledge of the meeting.
In an interview Tuesday, Barton smiled wryly when asked about the incident.
“I will admit on the record that I took exception to a comment that he made,” Barton said. “There is a separation of powers, and the president has a role and the Congress has a role. That’s all I’ll say.”