Trump's Sway Over GOP Hitting Limits on Trade, Guns, Immigration

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s cloak of political invincibility within the Republican Party is showing signs of fraying.

Some of the congressional Republicans who last year might have feared a disparaging mention in the president’s Twitter feed are readily pushing back when his populist instincts run counter to long-held Republican stands.

Trump’s announcement Thursday of tariffs on imported steel and aluminum was greeted by cheers from Democrats and wariness or outright criticism from Republicans. Likewise, his attempt to mediate on guns by embracing comprehensive background checks for buyers and raising the age limit for purchasing some rifles.

Earlier this year, his four main immigration proposals -- including a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants -- got only 39 votes in the Senate, with 14 Republicans voting against it.

“His power is more in swaying public opinion and the people who voted for him,” said Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “If he gives up on core issues that they hold dear, then his influence is diminished slightly on Capitol Hill."

That influence will be tested over the next eight months as states hold primaries for congressional elections in November that will decide control of the House and Senate. His approval rating with Republican voters remains strong — 80 percent or higher in most recent polls — even as his overall job approval is stuck below 40 percent.

Defying Odds

Trump won the White House with an odds-defying, rule-breaking campaign. There are signs he and the GOP may not be able to replicate that.

Last year, Trump’s endorsement failed to help former Senator Luther Strange win the Alabama Republican primary, and his unwavering support for winner of that race, scandal-plagued Roy Moore, couldn’t deliver a victory even in the GOP-dominated state. In a Pennsylvania special election scheduled for March 13, the Democratic candidate is making a competitive bid for a House district in the suburbs of Pittsburgh that had been safely in Republican hands for years.
 
Trump’s indecisiveness and shifting views has contributed to his diminished luster within the Republican Party by making GOP lawmakers wary of taking potentially risky votes for fear that the president will pull away political cover.

‘Tuesday Trump’

“On immigration and the gun stuff, sometimes you don’t know where he’s going to end up. You don’t know if it’ll be the Tuesday Trump or the Thursday Trump,” said Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, an occasional critic of the president who is retiring after 2018. “People are concerned about that.”

That’s been an issue for even Trump’s staunchest allies.

"This is an engaging president. So when he says something, it’s not always the final position he’s going to take," said Senator David Perdue of Georgia.

The confusion was evident on Wednesday when Trump stunned members of both parties during a televised White House meeting by endorsing background check legislation long sought by Democrats while telling conservative Republicans that their plan to expand the right to carry concealed weapons would never pass.

Trump even contradicted Vice President Mike Pence on measures to seize firearms from those deemed mentally ill or dangerous by saying he wants to "take the guns first, go through due process second."

Parting Ways

"I want to believe that the president didn’t mean it like it came out," said Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican. "I love our president, but on this one we’re going to have to part ways."

The National Rifle Association, which has been a staunch supporter of Trump as well as other Republicans, was flummoxed. While the “meeting made for great TV, the gun-control proposals discussed would make for bad policy that would not keep our children safe,” NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said.

A person familiar with discussions within the NRA, who asked for anonymity because the conversations were private, said the organization, the nation’s biggest lobby for gun owners and manufacturers, won’t soften its opposition to raising age limits for some rifles or applying background checks to private sales. If Trump follows through, the NRA will fight him, the person said.

When asked Thursday afternoon if Trump had moved the needle on guns, No. 3 GOP Senator John Thune of South Dakota paused, then said: "He kind of moved the needle all over.”

Re-election Races

Trump’s ability to sustain his influence over Republican lawmakers may depend on how they view their re-election races.

“Trump’s influence on Capitol Hill was significant last year, but in an election year the calculation for many members is different,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based Republican strategist. “His endorsement is still valuable in most places, particularly in Republican primaries. There is a limit to what he can sell on Capitol Hill and he may find that limit on several difficult issues this year.”

Alex Conant, a former spokesman for Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and a veteran campaign aide, said Trump succeeds when he shares goals of Republicans, such as on tax cuts and confirming judges, and fails when they differ.

“Trump and congressional Republicans have a very transactional relationship,” Conant said in an email. "Trump’s low poll numbers significantly weaken his influence on the Hill. A lot of congressional Republicans seeking tough re-elections are seeking to highlight policy disagreements with Trump.”

And although some Democrats have been encouraged by the president’s recent remarks on guns, they recall the sting of his shifts on immigration.

“He’s proven an ability to blow up a deal but not necessarily yet put one together,” said Senator Tim Kaine, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2016.

Senator Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, said Trump’s influence is “significant” when it comes to pushing Congress to debate issues that it might otherwise ignore, like immigration. But that doesn’t mean he can bring it to resolution.

“The president can weigh in and will have impact, but the reality of it is on some issues people are already seamed in to their positions,” Scott said. “So it’s hard to move the needle.”

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