Trump's Whipsaw Moves Rattle Republicans Bracing for Midterms

(Bloomberg) -- Conflict between President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress over his whipsaw moves on immigration and trade are sparking public splits just as GOP lawmakers need to unite on common themes in advance of the November midterm elections.

This week will be dominated by struggles percolating after recent policy maneuvers by the White House that have taken lawmakers aback.

The Senate will vote on a defense measure that would retain steep sanctions on China’s ZTE Corp. recently lifted by Trump. And the House will take up a compromise measure on immigration that includes language to halt Trump’s policy of separating undocumented immigrants’ children from their parents after they cross the southern border -- legislation with a very uncertain future.

The looming issues reflect growing challenges for Republican lawmakers trying to gauge how far to take their differences with a president who remains popular with GOP voters.

In a Monmouth University poll taken June 12-14, just 43 percent of all adults surveyed approved of the job Trump is doing, but a whopping 86 percent of Republicans approved. Yet that overwhelming bent toward Trump won’t help dozens of House and Senate lawmakers who represent moderate districts or states, and whose re-elections could decide control of Congress.

Survival Instincts

“It’s always better to be on the same page as the president, but in the interest of political survival they’re gonna have to part company,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Republican leaders have generally tried to minimize their differences with Trump. That happened last week when Senate GOP leaders tamped down a drive by Senator Bob Corker to curtail Trump’s ability to impose tariffs on trade partners, blocking his effort to get a vote on the proposal.

This week they’ll be working on other challenges, most notably in the Senate where the chamber is slated to pass an annual defense policy bill on Monday with language aimed at reversing Trump’s lifting of sanctions on Chinese telecom company ZTE. The battle pits most of the Republican-led chamber against the president, whom critics allege put national security at risk in order to do a favor for Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Go-Between Graham

Removing the ZTE provision before the bill passes isn’t likely, since it would require unanimous consent. Senator Lindsey Graham said he plans to meet with Trump in the coming days to try to resolve the standoff. It’s possible an eventual fix would soften the requirement that in order to lift sanctions, the president certify ZTE has not broken the law.

The House has already passed its version of the defense measure, and House Speaker Paul Ryan said it will be up to negotiators from both chambers to decide whether the Senate’s ZTE provision remains intact in the final defense bill expected to be completed by the end of July.

Meanwhile, Republican divisions will be on full display on the House floor, as a compromise immigration measure crafted between moderates and some conservatives faces a dueling vote with a more hard-line measure introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte.

Passing either of these bills with only Republican votes was always going to be a tall order, but Trump dealt his own party a serious setback when he said he wouldn’t sign the “more moderate” bill. The White House later backtracked, saying Trump was referring to a third immigration bill with bipartisan support.

Diversity Lottery

The confusion from the president’s off-handed comment, made on the White House lawn early Friday, will hang over House Republicans as they try to gauge support for both measures. Ryan previously said his leadership team was “working hand in glove with the administration on this,” to make sure any immigration put on the House floor is something Trump would sign.

Both bills would fund Trump’s wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, provide legal protections for the young immigrants known as “Dreamers,” and end the so-called diversity lottery that provides a pool of visas for immigrants from underrepresented countries.

The Goodlatte bill goes further. It would tighten existing immigration enforcement and limit family preference visas. The compromise bill includes the language changing the Trump administration policy of separating immigrant children from parents who are detained.

Trump’s expected to meet with House Republicans on immigration on Tuesday.

Kids as ‘Mortar’

This family separation policy has been widely criticized as inhumane, and even Trump has said he doesn’t like it and wants to change it -- while also blaming Democrats. His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, started the practice as a “zero tolerance” approach to a 1997 court settlement guiding how children can be detained, although current law doesn’t require them to be taken from their parents.

Republican leaders in both chambers last week said legislation should move that would prevent the separations. Democrats have seized on the issue as one of the worst iterations of the nativist wing of the Republican Party, just months before the midterm elections.

“What the administration is doing is they’re using the grief, the tears, the pain of these kids as mortar to build their wall, and it’s an effort to extort a bill to their liking in the Congress,” Democratic Representative Adam Schiff said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

‘Cheap Talk’

Both bills yet may fail, forcing Republican leaders to decide whether to advance a stand-alone measure addressing the family separation policy. It also could restart a rebellion by moderate Republican lawmakers who’ve threatened to force a vote on four immigration measures, including a bipartisan one that provides a path to citizenship for the Dreamers.

Republican backers of that measure, particularly ones from districts with high concentrations of Latino voters, are under increasing pressure to get results.

Josh Harder, the Democrat who’ll face Republican Representative Jeff Denham in his San Joaquin Valley, California, district this fall, said his Republican rival has a habit of offering “a lot of hot air, a lot of cheap talk” about his support for immigration -- mostly during election years.

“It’s just a ludicrous amount of cynicism,” Harder said in an interview. “You can’t count on somebody who just tries the same strategy again and again and again.”

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