Republican-controlled Congress not a carte blanche for Donald Trump
For only the third time since 1929, the Republican Party will control the House, Senate and the White House and have the opportunity to choose a Supreme Court nominee. As a result, most observers believe that President-elect Trump will ascend to the presidency with a uniquely consolidated power base.
A word of caution, however. Republican control of Congress and the White House by no means ensures the relationship between Trump and Congress will be smooth sailing or that Trump’s legislative proposals and policies will prevail.
This is the opinion of Republican staffers who recently conducted a survey on how smoothly things will go. While staff predicted only 9 percent of the issues would go poorly, and 26 percent would go smoothly; 64 percent would proceed in “fits and starts,” a far more realistic assessment.
Republicans hold a narrow majority in the Senate (52 seats) which is not enough to pass legislation given the 60 vote threshold needed to pass legislation. Thus, there is little room for Republican defections and potentially gives the Democratic minority (48 seats) the opportunity to throw up legislative roadblocks.
In the House, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) must struggle to hold together a fractious Republican conference plagued by political and ideological infighting over the past several years.
Here are some issues where congressional Republicans are likely to face push back from congressional Democrats as well as some Republicans.
Affordable Care Act: The budget resolution recently considered by Congress, sets up repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obama Care. The repeal, however is far from a done deal, since a growing number of Republican members of Congress have expressed concerns about repealing the ACA, before a replacement plan is ready. House and Senate Democrats believe Republicans should drop their repeal efforts and instead modify the health care law in a bipartisan fashion, though that is unlikely. Look for an acrimonious battle over health care.
Supreme Court Nominee: When President Obama took office in January 2009, then Minority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) vowed his mission would be to make the President a one-term president. Incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D- New York) struck a more conciliatory tone than had McConnell, noting Senate Democrats would work with President-elect Trump on issues where there is agreement.
However, as far as Supreme Court nominees are concerned it is highly unlikely that Democrats will support any nominee that Trump puts forward. Republicans have blocked the nomination of US Appeals Judge Merrick Garland for more than nine months. Sixty votes will be required for confirmation of a new Supreme Court Judge. Republicans control 52 seats which means they will need at eight Democratic Senators to vote with them. Look for continued stalemate on any Supreme Court nominee.
Confirmation Hearings: President-elect Trump has nominated a record number of nominees before assuming office and confirmation hearings are being pushed ahead. However, Democrats and some Republicans are concerned over the inadequate vetting of the President-elect’s nominees.
Confirmation hearings for Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State began on January 11, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) where Tillerson encountered tough questioning from Democrats and in particular from Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) on Russia. Tillerson took a stronger stand against Russian than his future boss, President-elect Trump, which could embolden Russia’s congressional critics to move quickly on legislation to impose mandatory sanctions on Russia, a move Trump and his supporters oppose.
US Attorney General-designate Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) also had a not-so-smooth confirmation hearing on January 10 before the Senate Judiciary Committee. During the confirmation hearing Senator Corey Booker (D-New Jersey) and civil rights icon Representative John Lewis (D-Georgia) testified against Sessions’ nomination. Booker broke the sacrosanct rule of not speaking ill of another Senator by his testimony.
While General Mattis, the Secretary of Defence-designate, is likely to be confirmed, there is disagreement among Democrats over the waiver Mattis needs to assume the position. US law prohibits former military officers from becoming Secretary of Defence until seven years have passed since retirement.
Mattis has been retired for only four years, so a waiver of the law is necessary. The waiver must be approved by both the House and Senate and there are reports that some House Democrats object to the waiver because it does not specifically name Mattis. Partisan wrangling over the waiver language could potentially delay Mattis’ confirmation.
Russia: Democrats and a few prominent Republicans are calling for an aggressive review of alleged Russian hacking during the 2016 election. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) have called for a new bipartisan investigation of alleged Russian activity.
McConnell, however, opposes this step and wants the closed door briefings to continue.
Israel/Palestine: In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Mattis told the panel that he considers Tel Aviv to be the capital of Israel, a statement not welcomed by those members who are advocating that the US Embassy be relocated to Jerusalem, a move which President-elect Trump also supports.
While a majority in Congress support moving the Embassy, there are a number who do not, so there is likely to some opposition to legislation calling for the Embassy to be moved, but not enough to defeat the legislation.
History has proved that the unbridled joy of the Republicans at having control is likely to be short-lived and this euphoria may quickly fade as the 115th Congress begins to consider a number of “hot-button” issues. In addition to the above examples, this Republican Congress will consider the thorny Middle East issues, including Syria and Islamic State, tax reduction legislation, dismantling environmental, labour and financial regulations, the difficult task of immigration reform. and border security, to name a few.
Democrats must be careful to avoid being held responsible for any legislative gridlock likely to occur, and at least give the appearance of doing what is best for the American public. Democrats are all too aware of the stakes in the 2018 elections and their actions will be guided by the need to win in 2018.
To paraphrase a line from a famous Bette Davis movie, Hold on to your seatbelts it’s going to be a bumpy two years!
Roxanne Perugino is a Legislative Policy Analyst at the Arab Center Washington DC.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.