Republicans Worry About Controlling President Trump

GOP lawmakers backing Trump say Congress will play a role in shaping his policies.

Rep. Raul Labrador
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
May 17, 2016, 9:30 p.m.

Capitol Hill Republicans and conservative activists couldn’t stop Donald Trump, but they hope to contain him if he becomes the president.

As more Republican lawmakers support the presumptive nominee, some are also vowing to assert their own power when working with Trump, who is less conservative in major policy areas than many GOP lawmakers.

After years of dismay over President Obama’s expansive use of executive power, GOP lawmakers and conservative activists are eager to reclaim more power for Congress, whether the next president is from their party or not.

Consider Rep. Raul Labrador, a member of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, who now supports Trump only after seeing more preferable candidates drop out of the race. Asked about the gulf between Trump and his group’s principles, Labrador replied, “We’re all concerned about that.”

But he added that Republican lawmakers were too compliant with President George W. Bush, and that Democrats in Congress have not checked Obama.

“So maybe now, as Republicans and Democrats, we can become legislators, and write clear legislation that actually articulates what we want the executive to do, instead of giving all the power to the executive like I think we have been doing for the last 40 years,” he told reporters in the Capitol recently.

Indeed, that’s the basic principle that motivates Sen. Mike Lee, who early this year led several other conservative lawmakers in launching the “Article I Project” to reverse what they consider an erosion of congressional power at odds with what the framers intended. (Lee, unlike a growing number of GOP lawmakers, has not backed Trump.)

Trump has campaigned as a maverick and a strongman. He has staked out several positions to the left of most congressional Republicans on trade and entitlement spending, and while he now opposes abortion, he has not made social issues a prominent part of his campaign.

But on Capitol Hill, several GOP lawmakers nonetheless say they’re optimistic that they could work with Trump.

Those were the signals coming out of last week’s meeting between Trump and a group of GOP senators, who emerged saying he listened and was solicitous of their views.

“We really didn’t get into any discussion on trying to move him one way or another, but I was optimistic that he showed an interest in our views,” GOP Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska told National Journal on Tuesday. “I would anticipate with a Republican president that we would have an open door and be able to have [a] discussion.”

The rapport between a President Trump and Capitol Hill Republicans is of course hard to predict, given Trump’s relatively few relationships in Congress and the difficulty of pinning him down on specifics.

“Who knows exactly at this point what that whole relationship might look like? I think we are all kind of charting new territory here,” said Sen. John Thune, a member of the GOP leadership team. But Thune said he thought there would be common ground on the economy and national defense.

John Cornyn, the Senate’s majority whip, said of Trump: “My sense is he would be collaborative.” Asked if he would seek to move Trump in a more conservative direction, Cornyn replied: “I sure would try.”

Trump, for his part, seemed to be signaling an openness to collaboration. Last week, he said he was “totally flexible on very, very many issues” and referred to his policy proposals as “suggestions.”

GOP Rep. Darrell Issa, who is backing Trump, argued recently that Trump will need to work with Congress.

“Donald Trump has never said ‘I am going to do everything by executive fiat.’ What he has said is, he is coming to Washington and he wants to change it and that includes working with Congress,” Issa said last week on ABC News’s Powerhouse Politics podcast.

“And since much of what Donald Trump says he wants to accomplish in the way of policies—including securing our borders, including policies that revitalize our economy, including immigration reform to end some programs that he has even used but said are stupid or not working properly—those will be areas in which House Republicans or Senate Republicans are going to have to lead with him to accomplish it,” he said.

Conservative commentator and writer Ben Domenech, who has strongly attacked Trump, believes that one “silver lining” of a Trump or Hillary Clinton presidency could be a growing interest in Congress, especially among the newer generations of conservatives, in checking the executive branch.

Domenech, publisher of conservative website The Federalist, said on a recent episode of the libertarian Cato Institute’s podcast: “When it comes to the willingness of Congress to confront the next president over these Article I [of the Constitution] powers, over reasserting their role, I do think that is a silver lining to the nature of both of these candidates—that given that they are so unpopular with the American electorate as a whole, given that they are viewed as people who are just about using the levers of power, there is some silver lining to the idea that no matter who is elected, there will be a motivating factor for Congress to rein them in.”

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