Republicans launched an internecine Twitter war on Thursday morning that, as trivial as it sounds, could signal real problems for President Trump’s policy agenda -- particularly the effort to avert a government shutdown that will begin in less than a month unless agreement on a new spending bill is reached.
It began early in the morning, when CBS broadcast an interview with House Speaker Paul Ryan. Asked about the Republicans’ failure to pass their plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act last week, Ryan expressed concern about driving Trump into compromise with the Democrats.
“What I worry about ... is that if we don't do this, then he’ll just go work with Democrats to try and change Obamacare, and that's hardly a conservative thing,” he said.
He later added, “I know he wants to get things done with the Republican Congress, but if this Republican Congress allows the perfect to be the enemy of the good, I worry we'll push the president into working with Democrats.”
Ryan’s apparent opposition to bipartisan cooperation drew a sharp rebuke from Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, a fellow Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
We have come a long way in our country when the speaker of one party urges a president NOT to work with the other party to solve a problem.— Senator Bob Corker (@SenBobCorker) March 30, 2017
But that wound up being a sideshow after the tweeter-in-chief stepped into the center ring. A little past 9 a.m., Trump lashed out at both Democrats and the House Freedom Caucus, the hard-right element in the House of Representatives that helped defeat the American Health Care Act last week.
The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don't get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 30, 2017
Trump’s call to “fight” against part of his own party in 2018 -- an election year -- was extraordinary even for him, and one member of the Freedom Caucus quickly hit back. Michigan Congressman Justin Amash, a Freedom Caucus member tweaked Trump on Twitter, suggesting that the president has already been corrupted by the “D.C. Establishment.”
Again, this all seems trivial on its face, but here’s why it could have some real consequences as the country approaches the expiration of the continuing resolution currently allowing the federal government to keep operating.
To pass a spending bill Trump and Ryan are going to need the cooperation of either the Freedom Caucus or a significant number of House Democrats -- the two factions that the speaker and the president appeared to be working hard to alienate on Thursday morning.
Don’t forget, it was less than a week ago that Trump tried to blame Democrats for the failure of AHCA. Trump bemoaned the fact that when it came time to vote on the bill, which had been negotiated exclusively by the House Republicans and the administration, with no input sought or accepted from the other side of the aisle. “We had no Democratic support ... They weren’t going to give us a single vote,” Trump complained.
To have Paul Ryan just days later suggesting that it would be a terrible thing for the President to work with Democrats doesn’t exactly prepare the ground for a useful dialogue with the people whose help he may need in the near future to avoid a government shutdown.
The reason he may need Democrats to pass a funding bill is that the other group President Trump antagonized on Thursday has more than enough votes to block one if they choose to do so.
Legislation to fund the government creates a sort of choke point in the legislative process, because when federal agencies have to shut their doors, not much else gets done in Washington. For that reason, spending bills tend to attract controversial riders that extreme elements in the Congress such as the House Freedom Caucus want to try to muscle through. In the recent past, Republicans have tried to use them to defund the Affordable Care Act or Planned Parenthood.
House leaders will want to avoid attaching riders that Democrats in the Senate would consider poison pills, because they know they would be subject to the filibuster in the upper chamber.
After handing Trump an embarrassing defeat on health care, Freedom Caucus chairman Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina seemed last weekend to be ready to work with the president on funding the government, promising that he did not expect there to be any problems.
Even then, there were serious doubts about whether Meadows would be able to bring along his caucus without some sort of major legislative prize attached to the bill. But now that Trump has vowed to work against them in the next Congressional election, it’s hard to see how sparing the president another embarrassment will be much of a concern to them.
And if the Freedom Caucus breaks from Paul Ryan and the rest of the House GOP, the only way the Speaker gets to a majority on a spending bill that can pass the Senate is by attracting the votes of Democrats, the same people that on Thursday morning he said a Republican president shouldn’t work with.
With less than a month to go, there’s a lot of fence-mending that’s going to have to happen on Capitol Hill if there’s to be any chance of avoiding a shutdown.