Congressional Memo: In a Cruel Summer for the G.O.P., ‘Things Are Starting to Feel Incoherent’

Some Republican senators, like Dean Heller of Nevada, should be gearing up for fights with Democratic challengers next year, but instead are trying to duck primary threats inspired at least in part by a president of their own party.

The professional deficits have been topped with dejecting personal tragedies. Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who has spent the better part of the last six months racing around the world defending a generation of American international positions, announced Wednesday night that he had brain cancer. The third-most powerful House Republican, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, lingers in a hospital bed, recovering from gunshot wounds sustained during a mass assassination attempt earlier this summer.

Instead of preparing for a month at home of crowing about the accomplishments of a unified government, Republicans have been diminished to trying to confirm relatively minor nominees — Democrats are stalling them — and getting a spending bill or two passed. They have been forced to cut their August recess short, all because they have nothing particularly positive to celebrate.

Even the former House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, who was seen gliding through the Capitol on Thursday, normally loquacious on all matters of party strategy, politics and the possibilities of moon colonization, had nothing to say. He started straight ahead when asked about Republican woes.

“Things are starting to feel incoherent,” said Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, reflecting on the health care efforts, which have turned many Republican senators against one another as efforts to negotiate the future of the Medicaid program have caused large rifts.

With no small measure of understatement, Mr. Corker conceded, “There’s just not a lot of progress happening.”


Senator Dean Heller of Nevada on Wednesday. The Republican holds a vulnerable seat in the 2018 midterm elections. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times

While Congressional Republicans’ problems stem largely from the chaos at the White House, many reflect fissures within their party over government spending, social issues, immigration and the role of America in the broader international order.

And once again, rather than trying to forge bipartisan alliances with moderate Democrats, Republican leaders appear determined to go it alone with one-party bills that must unite the hard right with the center right.

For example, a spending bill passed by House appropriators that would provide millions of dollars in funding for Mr. Trump’s proposed wall on the Mexican border sets up a potential fight on the floor with Republicans in the Senate, who earlier this year rejected a similar effort.

A nearly $700 billion appropriations bill that would fund the Pentagon faces an impending battle over an amendment, championed by Representative Vicky Hartzler, Republican of Missouri, that would end the Obama-era practice of requiring the Pentagon to pay for medical treatment related to gender transition. (Transgender service members have been permitted to serve openly in the military since last year.)

The same measure narrowly failed on a broader defense policy bill passed recently by the House, as some Republicans joined Democrats to reject it.

Some members of the House Freedom Caucus, many of whom won their original elections on a platform of reigned-in federal spending, have said they will not vote for a bill that does not include substantial wall funding and well as the transgender amendment, drawing fault lines around Mr. Trump within the party.

“What we haven’t been able to figure out is how to meld people with such different policy positions together to get the consensus, the majority it takes to pass bills,” Representative Bradley Byrne, Republican of Alabama, said.

Republicans blame Democrats for many of their woes: for slowing down nominations with procedural tricks because of their ire over health care, for not helping them to repeal the Affordable Care Act and for passing it in the first place. But increasingly, Republican senators are suggesting it would be better to work with the minority party to fix the law’s flaws.

Even in the House, Republicans and Democrats joined, at least momentarily, over the issue of Congressional approval for authorizing war. The effort was led by Representative Scott Taylor, Republican of Virginia and a former Navy SEAL, who joined forces with Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, demonstrating that foreign policy in the Trump era has provoked even more desire for a legislative role.

“I feel very strongly that Congress is handing over its war making authority to the executive branch,” said Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma. “It did so under Obama, and it is doing so under Trump. In their desire to spare their members from tough votes, the leadership of both parties have weakened the power of Congress. This belief is widely shared by the rank and file in both parties.”

Appropriators in the Senate are also working in a friendly and bipartisan manner on bills, but it remains to be seen how the process will play out on legislation that will require 60 votes to pass. Still, some Republicans are using optimism as oxygen as they head home after yet another week of chaos and disappointment.

“We will continue to focus on the priorities that restore hope and create opportunities for the economically vulnerable,” Senator Tim Scott, the ever-buoyant Republican from South Carolina, said. “Our focus, not as Republicans or Democrats but as Americans, is our future.”

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