Trump influence over congressional GOP spikes ever higher

Before Jason Smith moved his $78 billion bipartisan tax deal through the House, the Ways and Means chair made sure to run it by Donald Trump.

In a 90-minute meeting in December, Smith briefed Trump on the package that would expand the child tax credit and provide a series of business tax breaks — a move that helped ensure Trump would not scuttle the deal. The former president, presumably, gave him that reassurance.

“I have discussions with President Trump quite often, and he was well aware that this is a big win for his policies,” Smith (R-Mo.) said, recalling the lengthy conversation about the tax package that overwhelmingly passed this week. “President Trump is the leader of the Republican Party. People may not want to admit that. But he has been for a long time.”

Trump's restraint made it easier for House Republicans to steer the deal to overwhelming bipartisan passage. By contrast, the president's vocal opposition has essentially put the Senate’s emerging border deal on life support.

With every day that Trump draws closer to the GOP’s presidential nomination, his voice carries more weight within the party. The former president, who holds no elected office, arguably can exert more influence over the Republican agenda than either the party’s speaker or Senate GOP leader.

It’s a 180-degree turn from three years ago, when Trump’s efforts to overturn his loss to President Joe Biden culminated in a violent Capitol riot that ended with seven Republican senators voting to convict him in a second impeachment trial. These days, Republicans are increasingly sensitive to Trump's viewpoints and conscious of his power to upend bills that Joe Biden might be able to tout on the campaign trail.

At a minimum, Trump’s ballooning clout could doom two top Biden priorities: Ukraine aid and a bipartisan border deal. Even the tax deal Trump blessed on its way to House passage faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where some Republicans have warned that it could amount to a win for Biden. Republicans are still wondering whether Trump might publicly support the tax bill, according to interviews with several senators this week, with Finance Committee ranking member Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) saying he’s only heard “rumors.”

On the other side of that GOP divide, a sizable number of lawmakers are chafing at the idea that Trump can single-handedly tie their hands.

“I just think it's unfortunate that we can't, as individual United States senators, take the time and the effort and intellectual honesty to study something on your own and make a decision,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “Donald Trump has an opinion too. That's great, but ours should be our opinion.”

“I've made the argument on Ukraine that it's very stupid for us to get crosswise with the party’s nominees, especially on an issue where he's very directly opposed to Joe Biden,” J.D. Vance said.

When the Senate started its bipartisan border negotiations last fall — a Republican demand, to be clear — it still was not entirely clear Trump would lock up the GOP nomination. More than three months later, as those negotiations come to a close, Trump's collision course with Biden is threatening any deal in Congress that has Biden’s imprint on it.

So Trump's attacks have become something of a bat signal now for many Republicans in Congress.

“When former President Trump says something, everybody listens,” said Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas), who hails from a border district. “Everybody.”

When Trump was president, he frequently dialed up senators and members of Congress to discuss the daily Washington grind of politics and policy. He tanked a 2018 border deal, leaned on senators to support his nominees and developed his own kitchen cabinet of congressional advisers — some of whom, like former Speaker Kevin McCarthy and former Sen. David Perdue, are no longer in Congress.

So Trump’s leaning on old and new allies as he prepares for a fall slugfest over control of Congress and the White House. In the House, he frequently chats with Speaker Mike Johnson, according to advisers, as well as Reps. Elise Stefanik of New York, Max Miller of Ohio, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Ronny Jackson of Texas.

Over in the Senate, Trump iAndrew Harniks in regular contact with lawmakers like Sens. J.D. Vance of Ohio, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Steve Daines of Montana, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama.

"President Trump has worked to develop and maintain close relationships with Congressional members and elected officials that fight for the American people. That's why he's received overwhelming support," Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung said in a statement.

Trump views his relationships on the Hill as critical to his return to power. Over the course of the past year, he has spoken to over 100 members, soliciting endorsements and inviting them to his rallies or dinner at Mar-a-Lago. He has worked closely with Brian Jack, a senior campaign aide and congressional liaison, on cultivating relationships on the Hill.

His efforts have been fairly successful; Trump currently boasts the support of 137 House members and 31 senators. And when Republicans call Trump, it is often to ask for his opinion on whatever is playing out on the Hill as a kind of party elder, according to an adviser.

Still, even some Trump allies disagree. Graham said he speaks with Trump regularly, but he was comfortable differing with the former president and backing more aid to Ukraine, saying: "My policy ideas are pretty firm.” He was unwilling to comment yet on the border deal until he sees text.

Vance, another close Trump ally, seems to be more en vogue with the former president.

“I've made the argument on Ukraine that it's very stupid for us to get crosswise with the party’s nominees, especially on an issue where he's very directly opposed to Joe Biden,” Vance said. “Where I am substantively aligned with President Trump, which is on most things, my strong preference is that the caucus listens to President Trump.”

While Vance and other Trump confidants say that he isn’t personally lobbying GOP lawmakers to kill the border and Ukraine deal, that’s probably because he doesn’t need to. As the Republican primary fizzled out and Trump romped in the two early states, the GOP is intuitively reacting to Trump’s positions to avoid getting too far out of step with him.

Thom Tillis, one of Congress' most prominent deal-cutters, is urging other Republicans to develop their own opinions about legislation.

The effect is most pronounced in the House, where two-year terms and a constant threat to Johnson’s job make it politically perilous to diverge from Trump. Plus, House members are more susceptible to primary challenges that could easily spring from Trump-defying votes, like on the Senate’s border and Ukraine package.

“President Trump has had an influence on it. You also have to think about where we are in political cycles," Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said. “If you’ve got somebody who’s got a filing deadline in March or April or May, there’d be no way to prevent an uninformed person from challenging them.”

Tillis, one of Congress' most prominent deal-cutters, is urging other Republicans to develop their own opinions about legislation. The North Carolina Republican is opposing Smith’s tax bill and supporting Sen. James Lankford’s (R-Okla.) border deal, which backers argue won’t hurt Trump because it comes far too late to save Biden’s standing on the issue.

Trump realizes the border "is a potent issue for him. What I would tell him is I don't think the issue is going to go away,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a potential future GOP leader who has endorsed Trump. “Even if something were to pass in the next 10 months, I don't think you're gonna see a dramatic change at the border.”

So far, that argument has not sunk in. Trump visited Washington this week and attacked the border deal, warning that those who support it are making a “terrible mistake.” Episodes like that remind Republicans trying to negotiate deals Trump doesn't like — and break Congress' stubborn unproductive streak — that every day becomes more of an uphill battle.

“You gotta read it and understand that there are divided chambers and tight margins. And is half a loaf better than no loaf? That's what we got to look at,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.).

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Trump’s revenge? GOP braces for daily blasts from ‘orange Jesus’

Congressional Republicans are steeling themselves for a return to daily life with Donald Trump — which means constant, uncomfortable questions about his erratic policy whims and political attacks.

With Trump far ahead of the GOP primary pack and leading President Joe Biden in some polls, Republicans are getting a preview of future shellshock akin to their experiences in 2016 and his presidency. It’s likely to continue for the next 11 months. And perhaps four more years after that.

Trump's recent call to replace the Affordable Care Act is triggering a particularly unwelcome sense of deja vu within the GOP. Even as many Senate Republicans steered away from Trump over the past couple years, now they’re increasingly resigned to another general election that could inundate them with the former president's often fact-averse and hyperbolic statements.

But Hill Republicans are girding to treat Trump the third-time nominee the same way they did Trump the neophyte candidate and then president. They're distancing themselves and downplaying his remarks, which touch on policy stresses like his urge to end Obamacare and political grievances like his vow to come down “hard” on MSNBC for its unfavorable coverage.

“He is almost a stream of consciousness,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), one of only three Senate Republicans who will remain in office after voting to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial — the other four have either already left or plan to next year. It’s “analogous to when every day he would tweet," Cassidy added, "and 99 percent of the time it never came to anything.”

Even so, Trump’s return threatens to spark the same clashes with the Hill GOP that took a heavy political toll on the party, perhaps to an even stronger degree than his first term. Some potential flashpoints are evident in his agenda: Trump is likely to tap nominees who rankle Senate Republican leaders and pursue a polarizing bid to reshape the civil service into a less independent force.

Other sources of tension will be political. Trump could try to force an ouster of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, if the Kentucky Republican even tries to keep the top job under another Trump presidency. House Republicans could see their own leadership shakeup if Trump is elected, since the former president has the power to purge a leader he dislikes.

“One thing I'm pretty certain of is that the leadership is all up in the air. And I don't think any of them survive after this term,” said Rep. Max Miller (R-Ohio), a Trump ally who recently began airing public criticisms of Speaker Mike Johnson.

Trump’s first four years as president were a time of nearly constant tension within the establishment GOP, which wanted another nominee in 2016 but gradually fell in line behind him. Those stresses boiled over after the violent riot of Jan. 6, 2021, with many Republicans savaging Trump for stoking the Capitol insurrection and 17 Republicans in both chambers opposing him at his second impeachment trial.

Most of those 17 Republicans will be gone from Congress by the end of 2024. Those who will remain are slowly resurrecting a familiar dynamic: pushing aside worries that he’ll lose again to Biden and minimizing his online screeds and less palatable policy proposals.

“I'm under no illusions what that would be like,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who served as the GOP whip during Trump’s first two years as president and voted to acquit Trump. “If it's Biden and Trump, I'm gonna be supporting Trump. But that's obviously not without its challenges.”

The retiring Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who voted to convict Trump at two impeachment trials, put it more bluntly. He recalled meeting with a health secretary during Trump’s administration to delve into the president’s policies: “They had nothing. No proposal, no outlines, no principles.”

“He says a lot of stuff that he has no intention of actually doing,” Romney said of Trump. “At some point, you stop getting worried about what he says and recognize: We'll see what he does.”

Donald Trump’s team is confident of their broader relationships in the House and predicted GOP senators would fall in line behind pro-Trump colleagues.

Trump is paying little heed to how Republicans on Capitol Hill are reacting to his candidacy or plans for a second term. While only 13 of the 49 Republican senators have endorsed Trump, he has racked up over 80 House GOP endorsements and the list is expected to grow. In a statement, Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung said the former president's "second term will be one for the ages” and attacked Biden.

Even for those who liked Trump’s policies during his term, his related slew of controversies is an inescapable part of the deal.

"We have a lot of people on our side that utilize Donald Trump for their political benefit," Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) said, people who "get really tired of answering questions about Donald Trump. And I don't think that's fair to the president. You don't get the good without ... the whole package."

Another House-Senate GOP split is also likely to emerge if Trump continues steaming toward the nomination. Senate Republicans can win back the majority next year even if he loses the presidential election, given their red-leaning map.

But in the House, Republicans’ future is more deeply intertwined with the vacillations of the mercurial ex-president. And many of Trump’s House GOP critics don’t even want to entertain the idea of trying to govern alongside him; in interviews, some simply shook their heads and furrowed their brows in feigned fatigue.

“Shit, yeah,” Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) replied when asked whether his colleagues are worried about clashing with Trump. “The orange Jesus?” he added with a laugh.

Trump’s allies argued that his second term would be smoother than the first, notwithstanding the reality of his chaotic exit from office and subsequent indictments.

Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), an influential voice on the House's right flank, said Trump has “learned that there are people who [he] can trust and can't trust.”

Miller, a former Trump aide, said that the presidential frontrunner would look more closely to "allies like me who are moderately pragmatic, that are all in on the America First agenda," than more unpredictable conservatives like the eight (including Biggs) who voted to oust former Speaker Kevin McCarthy. He dismissed those Trump allies as "the freak shows within our party."

Trump’s team is confident of their broader relationships in the House and predicted GOP senators would fall in line behind pro-Trump colleagues like Sens. J.D. Vance of Ohio and Rick Scott of Florida. Indeed, Johnson has endorsed Trump for president and recently met with him at Mar-a-Lago on the sidelines of a political fundraiser at Trump’s club. The two men, who have a good relationship since Johnson’s days on the Judiciary Committee during Trump's first impeachment, had a friendly conversation and smiled for a photo together.

Johnson also supported Trump’s efforts to overturn the election, as did most House Republicans. Most Senate Republicans, on the other hand, did not — which could mean more static toward McConnell and his allies should Trump reclaim the White House.

A Trump adviser laughed off a question about McConnell’s relationship with Trump, arguing “there’s not much that Trump hasn’t said on that himself.”

McConnell’s office declined to comment for this story. He’s made zero effort to rejuvenate his partnership with Trump, which crumbled after Jan. 6.

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) argued that McConnell and Trump could still rekindle their partnership, "remembering that there's pre-election and then there's post-election. Things change after people become elected."

Another Republican close to Trump’s campaign specifically mentioned Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), whose reelection Trump threatened to oppose, as a potential target of future ire. (Thune won his race handily in 2022.)

In an interview, Thune acknowledged that Trump was in a strong position but said he likes what he’s hearing from former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's presidential campaign. Thune advised fellow Republicans to “be prepared to respond to similar types of ideas and proposals and statements in the future” from Trump as the primary accelerates.

Other Republicans who served during the first Trump presidency are reluctant to make any predictions about the future — beyond expecting the unexpected.

Still, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said plenty in the GOP dread Trump’s return to the political spotlight but “everybody is being more private about it.”

“I wouldn’t expect him to be different,” Simpson said, adding that many colleagues worry about "four years of revenge … we just have to wait and see.”

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