Cracks in the Foundation

So much winning.

Donald Trump wanted congress to send him legislation repealing the Affordable Care Act and leave him alone to formulate foreign policy with Vladimir Putin. Instead, congress tied his hands on Russian sanctions and failed spectacularly to give him the victory he craved on Obamacare repeal. This led to a predictable stream of angry tweets toward the Republican Congress from a chief executive incapable of accepting responsibility for anything. But congressional Republicans are not afraid of Trump’s bluster and they were not cowed. Republican Lamar Alexander and Democrat Patty Murray announced that their Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee would hold hearings in September on bipartisan plans to strengthen the individual insurance market rather than follow the president’s wishes and allow Obamacare to collapse. Meanwhile, Republican Thom Tillis and Democrat Chris Coons and Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Cory Booker have teamed up on two separate bipartisan initiatives protecting Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump’s Russian connections, while the Senate quietly approved a procedural maneuver that will prevent Trump from replacing Attorney General Jeff Sessions with a recess appointee who could potentially fire the special counsel.

Even if this doesn’t signal the start of a golden age of bipartisanship, it is a meaningful step toward congress asserting its institutional prerogatives for the first time in the Trump era. In this regard, we are moving into a new phase in the relationship between the president and congress, which to this point has been defined by uneasy opportunism and a lot of held tongues.

The ugly arrangement Republicans made with this ugly administration was to look the other way at its incompetence and abusiveness in exchange for keeping core Republican voters pacified and having a blank check to upend the welfare state and redistribute the spoils upward. With the latter initiative stalled because of the political impracticality of repealing Obamacare, and with the window for bold legislation from a new administration rapidly closing, some congressional Republicans are starting to realize that having a president willing to sign anything is of little value when internal disagreements and the fecklessness of their promises prevent them from functioning as a governing party.

Suddenly, the cost of defending Trump’s indefensible behavior has grown in relation to the expected benefits. As the potential for a bold rightward shift in policy fades from view, the lingering benefit of defending Trump is the stranglehold he maintains on a large enough share of Republican voters to affect the electoral prospects of House and Senate incumbents. They will need these voters next year, but as Trump demonstrated at a boisterous rally in West Virginia on Thursday, he can easily turn them against the Republican congress if he so desires. With congress unable to provide Trump the victories he craves, he will instinctively lash out. Like everyone else unlucky enough to have been drawn into Trump’s orbit, congressional Republicans will find themselves battered and diminished if they continue to enable his destructive impulses.

This will not end well for the Republican Party, which has been trying hard to avoid the consequences of this thing it has created. But there is a glimmer of hope for the republic in these first halting assertions of congressional privilege. As the public, bureaucracy, courts, journalists and state officials have to varying degrees pushed back against the administration, the one missing institutional check has been congress. The necessity of maintaining peace with the base will continue to compel many in congress to operate as a Republican legislature aligned with a Republican administration, but the brewing conflict with the White House will make it increasingly harder to sustain the alliance. For this to end well for the country, congress needs to act as a coequal branch of government, not a partisan appendage of the White House. And for the first time this no longer looks impossible.