For the past month, Republicans have been basking in the post-election glow, gushing about how they’ll finally destroy Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood. Even those who were less than enthusiastic about Donald Trump during the election have been willing to turn a blind eye to the president-elect’s outrageous behavior. For instance, House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz said he doesn’t think Trump’s business conflicts are worth investigating at the moment. And when asked about Trump’s false claim on Twitter that millions voted illegally, House Speaker Paul Ryan said, “It doesn’t matter to me. He won the election.”
But in 44 days, congressional Republicans will have to start working with the Trump administration to actually govern, and that means they’ll have to figure out which of his conflicting policy proposals were meant to be taken literally.
In a weekend tweetstorm, Trump reiterated his threat to impose a 35 percent import tariff on U.S. companies that move jobs overseas, and several top Republicans decided that they could no longer remain silent.
Trump’s hostility to free trade is one of his biggest departures from Republican orthodoxy, and while he may have brought many GOP voters to his side, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy could not bring himself to say he’d go along with 35 percent tariffs. When asked about Trump’s tweets, McCarthy initially suggested they were only meant to express a vague desire to help American workers. “I think the point the president-elect was trying to make was he wants to create jobs in America,” McCarthy said. But when pressed on whether Trump’s tariff threat makes him uneasy, McCarthy said, “I don’t want to get into some kind of trade war.”
The tax on our “soon to be strong border” would have to pass through Congress, and other Republicans said they were equally opposed to pursuing high tariffs.
“Some of these things do have to face a harsh reality but you have to be very careful if you’re going to add costly tariffs,” said Senator Orrin Hatch. “We’re all going back to the ’30s when they started playing around with this and that and caused a lot of trouble.”
When asked if he supports the 35 percent tariff, Senator John McCain scoffed and said, “No!”
Others focused on their support for tax reform as a way to entice businesses to remain in the U.S., rather than their opposition to Trump’s proposal.
“I think tax reform to entice people to stay is the right approach,” said Senator Lindsey Graham. “Tax penalties to keep them from leaving really gets into the boardrooms of every business in the United States.”
“I think we can get at the goal here,” Paul Ryan said in an interview with a Wisconsin paper on Monday, “which is to keep American businesses American, build things in America and sell them overseas — that can be properly addressed with comprehensive tax reform.”
The most diplomatic response came, appropriately, from Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, who’s in the running to be Trump’s secretary of State. He called himself “not much of a tariff-oriented individual.”
Senator Chuck Schumer, the incoming Democratic leader, told the New York Times that Trump won, in part, by challenging the Republican Establishment on economic issues. “If he wants to get something done for working families in this country, he’ll have to stand up to them when it comes time to govern, too,” he said.
The economy isn’t the only area where Republicans will have to confront deep divisions within the party. The House Freedom Caucus has declared that in 2017 it intends to challenge both Establishment Republicans and President Trump.
Representative Mark Meadows, who is set to become the group’s leader, told Politico that while Republican leaders are said to be coalescing around a plan to phase out Obamacare over a period of up to three years, that “will meet with major resistance from Freedom Caucus members,” who number roughly 40.
“It should be repealed and replaced, and all of that should be done in the 115th Congress” — the two-year period starting in January through 2018 — and “not left to a future Congress to deal with,” Meadows said. He suggested the Affordable Care Act could even be replaced before the 2018 enrollment period next fall.
The group, which pushed out Speaker John Boehner, could theoretically block legislation that replaces Obamacare over a three-year period. Representative Jim Jordan, the caucus’s current chairman, said they’re concerned that Establishment Republicans will “try to water down the good thing that the president-elect campaigned on, that [Freedom Caucus] members campaigned on … and not make them as strong as they should be and frankly what voters expected them to be.”
But the Freedom Caucus intends to take on the Trump administration as well, introducing several bills that would limit executive-branch powers. They’re working on legislation that would require the executive branch to write all rules and regulations related to a particular bill within three years of its passage, to prevent creative interpretation by future administrations. “We do anticipate push-back from the administration because we’re trying to limit their powers,” Meadows said. But, he added, “We believe it’s good policy going forward.”
The Freedom Caucus is likely asserting its goals now to counter claims that it’s become obsolete. As the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin noted, accusing GOP leaders of being insufficiently conservative probably won’t work anymore. “Apparently, the Freedom Caucus zealots missed the election of a non-conservative populist president with few, if any, objectives other than maintaining public adoration,” she said.
The idea that the House leadership can’t count on the Freedom Caucus’s support adds another layer of uncertainty to the next legislative session. Theoretically, congressional leaders could craft detailed plans for lowering corporate taxes or replacing Obamacare, only to see them undone by opposition from the Freedom Caucus and a handful of random tweets in which President Trump reverses his position. But Republicans won’t have to worry about intraparty squabbling unless lawmakers actually follow through on their promises to take a principled stand against Trump, if necessary — and there wasn’t a lot of that happening during the election.