The United States Senate’s last day of school before August recess started as many of them have for the past seven frustrating, unproductive months: with reporters badgering Republican senators about President Trump’s latest tweeted insult. In this case, the insult was directed at them.
“Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low,” Trump tweeted, about two hours before the Senate gaveled in for its last session until Labor Day. He was referring to the recently passed sanctions on Russia (and their repercussions), the closest thing the 115th Congress can point to as a bipartisan legislative achievement, or any legislative achievement, and which overwhelming majorities of Congress railroaded Trump into signing. “You can thank Congress, the same people that can't even give us HCare!” Trump blabbed.
Republican senators looked exhausted as they recited the day’s talking points on the latest presidential foul ball. Each Republican senator I heard respond, including Lindsey Graham, Ron Johnson, and Pat Toomey, offered some variation of “don’t blame us, blame Putin,” or “it’s Russia’s fault.” (John McCain was even able to deliver this line while receiving brain cancer treatment in Arizona.)
None would overtly acknowledge that there’s a new layer of tension between the Republican Congress and the administration, even as the administration is quite actively choosing to install a layer of tension between them. They just wanted to run the see-no-evil routine one last lackadaisical time with reporters, vote, and go home. The Senate had planned to stay in town for another week. After a noon vote, it was announced that there would be no more roll call votes for the rest of the month.
Republican senators may be happy to be rid of irritating reporters crowding them on the Senate subway platform asking them irritating questions for the next five weeks. At home, though, they’ll face five weeks of a considerably more threatening crowd: constituents upset with the Republican government’s stalled agenda, capped off by last week’s health care failure.
I asked senators what their message would be to constituents upset with their inability to enact the changes on which they were elected in what’s traditionally the most fertile time for legislating.
Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, re-elected in a surprise 2016 nail-biter, made clear that the problems were not Roy Blunt’s fault. “On health care, I did exactly what I said I would do when I ran,” he said, “and tried to convince at least one other person to join the 49 of us who couldn’t get to a better place in the end.”
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch believed that Republicans had “accomplished a lot, to be honest with you.” He noted that there’s more to the picture than just big-ticket legislation—the regulatory rollbacks from earlier in the year, the Gorsuch confirmation—and pointed the finger at Democrats for blocking so much legislation from receiving debate on the floor and for dragging out consideration of nominees.
“I don’t think the people at home are mad at us,” Hatch said. It reminded me of how Democrats, heading into the 2009 August recess, thought that what would most incense voters was Republican obstruction. Democrats lost 63 House seats in the next election.
Other senators were willing to concede that angry voters have the right to be angry with them.
“What I’m going to say to them is the truth,” Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy said. “They’re right. I’m frustrated. We’re six months into this Congress, [and] we failed on health care.”
Those six months have also been the first six months of Kennedy’s Senate career, and he gave me his initial impressions. “I haven’t met a dummy yet,” he said. “Most senators are really nice people. Now, there are a couple of jerks. There are one or two that think they’re founders of the country.” (I asked him to name names, and he refused. Usually the senator that all the other senators can’t stand, though, is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.)
Moving forward, both Kennedy and South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds suggested Thursday that instead of pursuing the ambitious, comprehensive rewrite of the tax code they had envisioned in more optimistic times, they might start with a “down payment”: a simple 2 percent rate cut across the board or an increase in the standard deduction.
But tax cuts, the only thing keeping Republicans’ spirits up following health care’s failure, will have to wait their turn. September is going to be an awfully busy, and just plain awful, time for Republicans, as they have to deal with a slew of tricky items to keep the ship of state afloat. That means passing the defense authorization bill, raising the debt ceiling, and finding some way to keep the government funded beyond Sept. 30, either through a new budget resolution and negotiated appropriations bills (unlikely) or a continuing resolution that punts the issue a few months down the road (very likely).
Cruz insisted that there will still be plenty of time after recess, and after all of September’s duties, to implement the agenda they ran on. He laid out that agenda as repealing Obamacare (nope, Cruz has not and will not ever give up on that), tax reform, cutting more regulations, and loading the federal bench with conservatives. But at least he recognized that if this Congress can’t get all of this done, the blame is all theirs.
“If we deliver on those, this would be the most productive Congress in decades,” he told reporters. “If we fail on those four, this Congress would be a heartbreaking missed opportunity.”