How many Republican members of Congress are still wearing their Donald Trump socks?
When House and Senate Republicans held a policy retreat in Philadelphia during Trump's first week in office, one of the items in each member's gift bag was a pair of socks decorated with the new president's face. The socks, reported Politico, were claimed to be "a huge hit."
The retreat itself occurred amidst an atmosphere of palpable partisan optimism. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell unveiled ambitious plans for the coming session of Congress. Legislation repealing the Affordable Care Act would be on the president's desk by March, according to the leaders' proposed calendar, with a tax reform agreement following by the August recess—at which point the first phase of funding for Trump's promised southern border wall would be in place and a major infrastructure package would be "moving along." Trump himself made an appearance at the retreat, promising his fellow Republicans that "we're actually going to sign the [bills] that you're writing; you're not wasting your time" and vowing that "this Congress is going to be the busiest Congress we've had in decades, maybe ever."
We have now reached the August recess, and the only major piece of legislation that Congress has enacted this year is a bipartisan bill tightening the sanctions on Russia (as punishment for its record of meddling in the 2016 election on behalf of the Republican presidential ticket) that Trump grumpily signed rather than risk the embarrassment of having his veto overridden.
That Republican hopes for a historically prolific congressional session have gone unfulfilled is hardly shocking in itself. It's common for presidents and other party leaders to entertain visions of legislative productivity that dissipate upon exposure to the political and procedural obstacles to achieving major policy change within the American system of government. Though there's little chance of the entire Republican wish list ultimately becoming law, plenty of time remains in the next 18 months for selected elements of the party platform to make their way through the House and Senate.
But salvaging what's left of the GOP's legislative agenda will still require extensive collaboration and cooperation between Congress and the White House. Unfortunately for Republicans, this relationship has been deteriorating rapidly over the past few weeks. The failure of health care reform in the Senate prompted a series of critical remarks from Trump, who also unsuccessfully demanded the abolition of the legislative filibuster. During the Senate health care debate, a member of Trump's cabinet threatened Senator Lisa Murkowski with retribution against her home state of Alaska if she did not support the ACA repeal plan backed by the White House. (She cast a decisive vote against it.)
Republican members of Congress have likewise become more open in distancing themselves from the president. Senate Judiciary Committee chair Chuck Grassley publicly warned Trump not to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Senate Finance Committee chair Orrin Hatch rejected Trump's demands that Republicans continue to work on hammering out a health care bill, and Senator Jeff Flake published a book containing sharp criticism of Trump. On Monday, Mitch McConnell blamed Trump for creating unrealistic expectations about the ability of Congress to quickly deliver significant legislative achievements ahead of "artificial deadlines"—even though McConnell himself had promised swift action on the party agenda during the Republican retreat in January. McConnell's remarks, in turn, provoked sharp counterattacks from White House aide Dan Scavino and Trump loyalist Sean Hannity.
Though Trump critics wish for an even less deferential Congress, this is still a very unusual degree of tension between two branches under control of the same party—especially since the Trump presidency is barely six months old. And it's about to get worse.
Before Congress can even think about making major progress on issues like tax reform, it needs to raise the federal debt ceiling and pass at least a temporary resolution funding the government past the end of the current fiscal year (September 30) while it works out a longer-term appropriations plan. Both tasks will require bipartisan agreement. Democratic support will be necessary in the Senate to avert a filibuster, and may well be needed in the House as well to compensate for what may be plentiful nay votes from the Republican side of the aisle on one or both measures.
There will be no "big wins" for Trump in the near future. The best-case scenario for resolving these responsibilities simply keeps the federal buildings open and the debt serviced with a minimum amount of legislative disarray; Democrats have considerable leverage and no reason to support legislation that contains a major rightward policy shift on any issue. In the worst-case outcome, the process falls apart and the government shuts down or defaults on its obligations—both with potentially disastrous consequences for both the president and the ruling party in Congress.
This is also very treacherous ground for Paul Ryan. His predecessor John Boehner was deposed from the speakership by rebellious conservative purists in large part because he regularly found it necessary to push must-pass legislation through the House with more Democratic than Republican votes. Ryan is similarly at risk of sustaining considerable damage in the upcoming debt ceiling fight, with one anonymous Republican House member telling the Huffington Post that legislation raising the debt ceiling without delivering on other conservative priorities would mark "the beginning of the end of the Ryan speakership," even though such a proposal might be the only bill that could pass the Senate and avert a governing catastrophe.
At least Boehner, for all his problems, didn't have Trump to deal with. About the best that Ryan and McConnell can hope for is that they can guide bipartisan bills through Congress before the clock runs out and that Trump will sign them while merely making a few snide remarks. But what if Trump sides with the hard-liners demanding large spending cuts, or regulatory repeal, or funding for his border wall? What if he fails to come to the defense of party leaders facing a mutiny from within their ranks? What if he vetoes a bill sent to his desk, plunging the nation into a crisis?
Normally, there is a perception of mutual linked fate that prevents a president and his congressional party from letting their differences become too vast or too public. But Trump is an inexperienced and impatient president who is incapable of taking responsibility for setbacks. He is getting to a point in his presidency where he's going to need an answer for the question of why he hasn't delivered on all of his big, beautiful promises. Congress will be an irresistible scapegoat for his failures; the only uncertainty is whether the smooth functioning of the federal government is a casualty of the resulting crossfire.