WASHINGTON ― Republican infighting exploded into a full-blown brawl this week as party officials bickered over their stalled agenda six months after they seized complete control of the federal government.
Sniping over the pesky predicament, congressional Republicans have yet to pass a single major legislative achievement, prompting speculation things will worsen after they return from recess next month. The issue came to a head Thursday after President Donald Trump publicly rebuked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) over his failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
“They lost by one vote,” the president said on Thursday, referring to last month’s failed Senate effort to repeal Obamacare. “For a thing like that to happen is a disgrace.”
When asked by reporters whether McConnell should step aside from his leadership post, Trump suggested the Kentucky lawmaker should do so if he doesn’t deliver on top administration items such as tax reform, Obamacare repeal, and an overhaul of the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.
“If he doesn’t get that done, then you should ask me that question,” he said at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club, where he is vacationing for the month.
The reproach, as well as several earlier tweets Trump posted that called on the Kentucky lawmaker to “get back to work” to repeal Obamacare, came in response to McConnell’s surprising criticism of the administration earlier this week.
The soft-spoken majority leader, who usually shies away from directly challenging Trump, charged that the president and his top aides had been overly optimistic about the ease with which Congress could enact major legislation.
“Part of the reason I think that the storyline is that [lawmakers] haven’t done much is because, in part, the president and others have set these early timelines about things need to be done by a certain point,” he said during Monday remarks to a Rotary Club in Kentucky.
Rarely, if ever, do Americans get such a display of discord between top leaders of the same party. Intraparty squabbles are usually kept strictly behind closed doors to project unity and maintain message discipline. (A memorable example otherwise came from Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, who wrote in 2012 that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) once muted former President Barack Obama during a conference call, an account that she later denied.)
But while Trump’s feud with McConnell and what it means for the feasibility of tax reform drew headlines in Washington, it was but one of the several public skirmishes that have exposed Republican divides this week.
In Arizona, hedge fund billionaire and top Trump donor Robert Mercer put the president’s critics on notice on Wednesday after he contributed $300,000 to a super PAC supporting former Arizona state Sen. Kelli Ward, who is mounting a primary challenge to Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) next year.
Flake is viewed as one of the most vulnerable GOP senators up for reelection next year, so Mercer’s contribution to his opponent appears significant. The move comes after the Arizona senator publicly criticized Republican officials as he promoted his new book, Conscience of a Conservative, where he accused the GOP of violating their principles in supporting Trump.
“That unnerving silence in the face of an erratic executive branch is an abdication, and those in positions of leadership bear particular responsibility,” Flake wrote, urging his colleagues to speak out when they disagree with the president.
Also on Wednesday, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) expressed his frustration over the failed Senate health care repeal vote by implying in a radio interview that Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) brain tumor may have had some kind of influence on his decision to oppose a bill that would have repealed Obamacare. Johnson issued an apology several hours later.
“You know, he has a brain tumor right now ― that vote occurred at 1:30 in the morning ― some of that might have factored in,” he said, before his retraction.
Failure to deliver on their 7-year-old promise to repeal Obamacare isn’t just causing consternation among top GOP lawmakers, however. Republican candidates up and down the ticket are also blaming each other over health care.
Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), for example, drew a primary challenge this week from businessman Danny Tarkanian, who criticized the Nevada lawmaker’s shifting stance on Obamacare repeal and accused him of “obstructing” the president’s agenda.
In Alabama, an ad released this week by GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore criticized McConnell over the health care repeal vote, charging that the majority leader lied to his constituents about his intention to repeal.
Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Ahrens, however, was eager to point out signs of discord among Democrats, who carry their own bag of problems. Major challenges in raising money, as well as a bitter dust-up among California Democrats in recent weeks, Ahrens said Thursday, “are emblematic of the lack of unity, enthusiasm, and leadership plaguing today’s Democrat [sic] Party.”