From ‘New American Moment’ to Same Partisan Rancor
Posted January 31, 2018 1:29 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON — Now back to our regularly scheduled acrimony.
While a toned-down President Donald Trump called for more bipartisanship in his first State of the Union address Tuesday night, the reality is that relations between the two parties on Capitol Hill — and between Democrats and the White House — are badly strained if not downright toxic at present.
The speech seemed to do little to ease tensions and in fact may have exacerbated them. Trump will find fulfilling his stated goals on public works projects, immigration and other top initiatives very difficult given the polarized atmosphere.
Deep divisions were on display in the House chamber as Democrats sat stone-faced through most of the president’s remarks — rarely rising to offer even polite applause. Republicans cheered line after line, reserving one of their loudest roars for Trump’s celebration of “our massive tax cut” — a proposal opposed by every single Democrat in the House and Senate. Trump also celebrated overturning elements of the new health care law and drove home his success at lifting federal regulations and appointing conservative judges — other areas where he is at odds with Democrats.
“I have never seen a president who cares nothing about reaching out to people who did not vote for him,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio as he exited the Capitol after what he and many other Democrats considered a divisive speech meant mainly to appease Trump backers.
As the president hailed a “new American moment,” reaction to the speech reflected the same dynamic of the past year — Republicans embracing Trump as a president who will advance their agenda despite quiet concerns about his behavior, while Democrats were appalled.
Adding to the partisan strain, Democrats are incensed over a move by House Republicans to make public a classified memorandum critical of the FBI that Democrats say is intended to undermine the ongoing special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
And Democrats said they were very disturbed by the lack of pushback from Republicans over the White House decision not to impose new sanctions against Russia despite Congress last year overwhelmingly approving the punishment with the support of all but a few members of the House and Senate.
“Why is the president ignoring the sanctions?” asked an exasperated Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a veteran of three decades in Congress. “I’ve never seen it like this.”
Republicans, in praising the president for bold leadership, say Democrats bear some responsibility for finding bipartisan solutions and need to get past their animosity for Trump if they want a deal on immigration.
“If Democrats refuse to negotiate now after what President Trump put on the table, perhaps they should ‘migrate’ out of Congress,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas.
The ongoing hostility is not without consequences. Government funding runs out again on Feb. 8 and delicate negotiations are continuing in an effort to reach an immigration deal by early March at the latest. The parties need to have some level of trust and willingness to work together to resolve these difficult issues, since both spending and immigration measures will require votes from both sides of the aisle to become law.
To that end, Trump said in his speech that he was “extending an open hand to work with members of both parties.” He urged lawmakers “to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve.”
But to many Democrats, that appeal rang hollow given the past year that saw the Republican effort to unravel the Affordable Care Act and Trump’s tendency to back away from tentative compromise agreements with Democratic leaders after objections from Republicans.
“I wish he was truly the bipartisan uniter, not the divider-in-chief who came into the chamber,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
Current disputes over spending and immigration have persisted for months. Despite fundamental differences, the efforts to resolve them have been inching forward. But the decision by Speaker Paul D. Ryan to back the release of the report on the FBI and the quiet acceptance by Republicans of administration assurances that added sanctions are not needed have Democrats newly alarmed. They profess deep concern about threats to government institutions.
“It is amazing to me the lengths that some of the Republicans, particularly in the House, will go to protect the president when they are doing real harm to our democracy, our rule of law,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, in an interview. “This is not just a political battle. It goes to the wellspring of our democracy.”
Schumer faulted House and Senate Republican leaders for not intervening.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, sought to distance Senate Republicans from the FBI report prepared by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, noting that the Senate intelligence inquiry was on a different track. And he deferred to Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, on the sanctions issue.
Corker “seemed to feel that, under the circumstances, the administration did the right thing,” McConnell said.
But as Republicans left Washington on Wednesday for a party retreat to plan strategy for what is looming as a combative midterm election year, the disputes over the Russia sanctions and the House intelligence report are emerging as new partisan flash points.
No one on Capitol Hill expected Trump’s first stab at the State of the Union to end the turmoil and conflict that has characterized his first year in office. But lawmakers left the speech seemingly farther apart than when they entered. And the rancor is rising just as Congress is again short on time to find ways to agree.