Senators vacate Washington, a president’s recriminations ringing in their ears

Liz Goodwin
Senior National Affairs Reporter
President Trump with Republican senators at the White House discussing the health care bill, July 19, 2017. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP)

WASHINGTON — Senators are leaving Washington this week for the remainder of the summer, with little legislation to show for seven months of work and an angry president blaming them for the country’s strained relationship with Russia and the continued existence of Obamacare.

Trump tweeted Thursday morning that U.S.-Russia relations were at an all-time low following the passage of a bill that reinforced sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea. The president signed the bill on Wednesday morning.

“You can thank Congress, the same people that can’t even give us HCare!” he wrote, presumably referring to both Democrats and Republicans, although his own party controls both houses. The House of Representatives recessed on July 28.

Several Republican senators pushed back, saying relations between the U.S. and Russia were poisoned by Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 elections — an episode Trump has minimized in public.

“I’d thank Putin for that, not Congress,” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., told reporters. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and others made similar statements.

But lawmakers also admitted that they had not gotten as much done as they had hoped to with both the White House and legislature in their control.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan to repeal parts of Obamacare failed by just one vote on the Senate floor. Trump wants them to try again, but much of the conference is moving on to tax reform, which the White House also wants done by the end of the year. At the same time, there are must-pass bills coming up to fund the government and to increase the government’s borrowing limit.

“We’re getting nothing done, my friends. We’re getting nothing done,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on the Senate floor last month, urging his colleagues to rise above their dysfunction and partisanship.

The Senate has rolled back more than a dozen Obama-era regulations and pushed through a Supreme Court nominee along with dozens of other nominations. But their grander ambitions on health care, tax reform and infrastructure have stalled, as a bare majority of Republicans attempt to push through that legislation without Democrats. According to the Washington Post, the Senate has passed fewer than 10 bills this session that require a roll call vote — a stunningly small output.

“It’s not good enough, we’ve got to do better,” said Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. He conceded the “ball is in our court” on repealing and replacing Obamacare.

“We would have liked to have achieved more things, obviously,” Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., conceded on NBC Thursday.

Flake recently published a book excoriating members of his own party for losing their way during the 2016 campaign and turning their backs on conservative principles such as free trade in order to embrace Trump, a former Democrat.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: J. Scott Applewhite/AP, Bill Clarke/RollCall via Getty Images, J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The uneasy alliance between many Senate Republicans and Trump is starting to show signs of strain. Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican who has not previously been a frequent critic of the president, announced Thursday he is introducing a bill to prevent Trump from firing the special counsel in charge of overseeing the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, has impanelled a grand jury in the case. The Senate is also likely to use procedural moves to stay in session technically, even while the members all leave town, preventing Trump from filling jobs with “recess appointments” that would circumvent the need for confirmation.

And several Republicans are asking Trump not to follow through on his threat to sabotage Obamacare by stopping government subsidy payments to insurance companies. Republicans and Democrats plan to hold bipartisan hearings on stabilizing the individual markets in September.

“I think they’ve seen that threats and things like that really don’t work with people here,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said.

It remains to be seen if Trump ramps up his bashing of GOP senators and what that would mean for their fall agenda. For now, lawmakers downplayed the tension.

“I’m sure that a lot of people said bad things about me today and Congress today and the president would be in that group, I guess,” Blunt said.

He added that he didn’t think relations between Congress and the president were as bad as has been reported. “We’re hopeful about a new staff structure and I think we’re going to see things begin to happen in different ways,” he said.

Former Gen. John Kelly was recently brought over from leading the Department of Homeland Security to be Trump’s chief of staff.

Democrats are hoping for improvement as well.

“I think the first six months have been trying months for all of us,” said Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking member on the judiciary committee.

Asked if she thought the situation would improve in the fall, she crossed her fingers.

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