OFF TO THE RACES

A Week That Could Revive Trump

He gets a chance to act presidential on his foreign trip, while at home congressional Republicans go to the mat on make-or-break domestic issues.

President Trump visits the Western Wall on Monday in Jerusalem.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
May 22, 2017, 8 p.m.

Last week, it was the role of Rus­sia in the 2016 cam­paign that dom­in­ated the news; this week, with Pres­id­ent Trump on his first over­seas trip and largely stick­ing to his script, it’s more likely to be the sub­stant­ive chal­lenges fa­cing con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans that will move to cen­ter stage in Wash­ing­ton.

As vet­er­an Wash­ing­ton hand Billy Moore wrote on Sunday in his weekly note to cli­ents, “The fisc­al 2017 and 2018 budgets will col­lide this week when the Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice re­veals its score of the fisc­al 2017 House re­con­cili­ation bill to re­peal Obama­care and the White House rolls out its fisc­al 2018 budget pro­pos­al. If CBO de­term­ines the Obama­care le­gis­la­tion fails to reach its $2 bil­lion sav­ings goal, the House will need to re­tool and pass it again.”

While there is plenty of polit­ic­al danger in these moves for con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans up for reelec­tion, at least these chal­lenges are con­ven­tion­al in nature. They’re not at all like the sur­real events of the past 10 days, when the cap­it­al was gripped by why Pres­id­ent Trump fired FBI Dir­ect­or James Comey, what was said in sev­er­al meet­ings between the pres­id­ent and Comey, and what the Pres­id­ent told Rus­si­an For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lav­rov and Amb. Sergey Kislyak.

Budget wrangling is the kind of prob­lem law­makers signed up for when they ran for House or Sen­ate. Try­ing to fig­ure out wheth­er Trump is King Lear or an im­puls­ive real-es­tate mag­nate is bey­ond their ken and best left to the law­yers.

As far as the con­ven­tion­al is­sues are go­ing, Moore, a 35-year vet­er­an of con­gres­sion­al battles, told his cli­ents Thursday that, along with the an­ti­cip­ated CBO score this week, “White House budget chief Mick Mul­vaney will testi­fy on the fisc­al 2018 budget, re­por­ted to cut tril­lions of dol­lars from safety net, edu­ca­tion, ag­ri­cul­ture, and en­vir­on­ment­al pro­grams in or­der to in­crease mil­it­ary and vet­er­ans spend­ing. The budget bal­ances in 2028 by as­sum­ing $2 tril­lion in new rev­en­ue res­ult­ing from tax cuts.”

Moore went on to write that “House Re­pub­lic­ans ap­pear ready to re­tool the Trump budget to add Medi­care cuts the pres­id­ent re­fused to in­clude. Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans will prob­ably ig­nore both the White House and House budgets and de­vel­op their own—sim­il­ar to their ef­forts on Obama­care le­gis­la­tion. Tax cuts en­abled by the budget will have to wait for the two cham­bers to reach agree­ment on a fi­nal 2018 fisc­al blue­print.”

For Trump, this week is an op­por­tun­ity to present him­self as pres­id­en­tial, not the ac­ci­dent­al pres­id­ent that his crit­ics make him out to be. With ex­pect­a­tions low, he can re­as­sure the coun­try by hand­ling com­plic­ated is­sues and show­ing per­son­al re­straint on his over­seas trip.

As it is, the White House and Re­pub­lic­ans are tak­ing heart that the GOP base has stuck with him so far. The daily track­ing polls by the Gal­lup Or­gan­iz­a­tion show that for the week of May 15-21, 84 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans ap­proved of the job he was do­ing, com­pared with 31 per­cent of in­de­pend­ents and just 7 per­cent of Demo­crats. Over­all, the Demo­crat­ic num­ber can’t really get much lower, so the oth­er two are the fig­ures to watch. Among all adults, Trump’s ap­prov­al rat­ing was 38 per­cent, while 56 per­cent dis­ap­proved and 6 per­cent were un­de­cided.

There is noth­ing that con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans can do about Trump’s tweets, off-the-cuff com­ments, and be­ha­vi­or seen as exot­ic for a pres­id­ent. The only some­what con­trol­lable vari­able is wheth­er they can get enough done le­gis­lat­ively that will al­low them to hold their base and a reas­on­able num­ber of in­de­pend­ents. In most con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts and states where in­cum­bent Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors are up for reelec­tion, that will be suf­fi­cient, with the not­able ex­cep­tion of the swing state Nevada, where Sen. Dean Heller is up for reelec­tion and will need plenty of in­de­pend­ent votes, and, to a less­er ex­tent, Re­pub­lic­an-lean­ing Ari­zona, where Sen. Jeff Flake will be on the bal­lot.

The im­me­di­ate chal­lenge for the GOP will come Thursday night, when the votes will be coun­ted in the spe­cial con­gres­sion­al elec­tion for the at-large House seat va­cated by Ry­an Zinke’s ap­point­ment as sec­ret­ary of the In­teri­or. In the­ory, this should be an easy state for the GOP. Zinke won by nearly 16 points in 2016, 56.2 to 40.5 per­cent, and by 15 points in 2014, 55.4 to 40.4 per­cent. Trump beat Hil­lary Clin­ton there by more than 20 points last year, 56.2 to 35.7 per­cent, after Mitt Rom­ney beat Pres­id­ent Obama by nearly 14 points, 55.4 to 41.7 per­cent, in 2012.

Polls have shown the race tight­en­ing, however. Giv­en the rur­al and small-town ori­ent­a­tion of many Montana voters, a Demo­crat­ic vic­tory would be a thun­der­bolt, a single-di­git Re­pub­lic­an vic­tory would be an omin­ous sign, and a double-di­git GOP win would sug­gest, at least in this kind of dis­trict, that things are close to nor­mal.

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