POLITICS

Try As He Might, Trump Struggles To Spin Government Spending Bill As A Victory

One conservative group says Republicans in Congress may need to look in the mirror and ask, "What are we doing here?"

03/05/2017 8:29 AM AEST | Updated 03/05/2017 5:44 PM AEST

WASHINGTON ― Republicans control the House, Senate and White House, but you wouldn’t know it looking at the details of the government funding bill released in the early morning hours of Monday.

The bill, which will keep the government running until September, was immediately hailed by Democrats as a major legislative achievement and prima-facie evidence of their ability to out-negotiate and out-maneuver President Donald Trump.

GOP leaders did their best to claim victories on the margins and to hail the measure as a pleasant return to a collaborative status quo. But some top Republican lawmakers were also willing to concede that Trump got his clock cleaned ― with the bill containing no money for his border wall with Mexico, no major domestic spending cuts and no defunding of Planned Parenthood ― while conservative groups were even more vicious in their assessments.

“There are things in this bill that I just don’t understand,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told CNN. “This was not winning from the Republican point of view.”

“The process for this omnibus could not have been worse,” Adam Brandon, of the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks, said in a statement. “With a Republican-controlled Congress and a Republican president, this spending bill reflects Obama-era spending levels. At some point, Republicans in Congress must look in the mirror and ask themselves, “What are we doing here?”

By Tuesday morning, Trump himself seemed aware of and sensitive to the criticism. He also appeared bothered by the celebratory gestures of congressional Democrats, taking to Twitter to warn that he would shut down the government the next time Congress has to work out a funding deal.

Such Twitter tantrums have become par for the course for Trump. What’s harder to ascertain is how, even with full control of the government, he and fellow Republicans have yet to figure out how to more forcefully move their ideological agenda. The government funding deal certainly illustrated the president’s poor grasps of policy and process. It also spotlighted how, in the wake of this inaction, Democrats have been able to obtain some macro- and micro-legislative wins that could end up motivating their base.

Tucked into the government funding bill, for example, is $300 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative ― a fund that the president wanted slashed. Its inclusion in the omnibus went largely unnoticed in reporting on the deal. But it was a major win for Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who was able to tout her capacity to lead “the bipartisan effort to stop President Trump.” The same was true of health care for retired coal miners and their widows. Permanent funding for that was part of the final deal, providing to vulnerable Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Joe Manchin of West Virginia policy achievements that they could tout in their 2018 re-election campaigns.

While Democrats were celebratory, Trump and his aides tried to save face. Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, took over the daily press briefing at the White House on Tuesday to spin the deal as a major win for Republicans and Trump.

“I’d be happy to have this discussion with everybody and convince anybody on the right this was a great deal,” Mulvaney said.

Pressed on the fact that conservatives were left seething over the $1 trillion spending bill, Mulvaney suggested that they were simply unfamiliar with the details.

“My guess is they’ve been reading The Washington Post, they’ve been watching television and heard the Democrats’ side of the story,” he said.

Mulvaney, a former member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, may want to check in with his former colleagues. A majority of the caucus will likely vote against the spending bill, especially if they are paying attention to conservative groups FreedomWorks and Heritage Action.

Both released “key vote” alerts Tuesday, encouraging members to vote against the spending bill, arguing it was a rebuke of Trump’s priorities.

“When spending bills provide more funding to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) than border security, as this bill does, it’s fair for conservatives to ask if this resembles more of an Obama administration-era spending bill than a Trump one,” the alert from Heritage Action stated.

Whether or not Trump learns his lesson from this will be seen in September, when the next government funding bill must be hammered out. But his inexperience in Washington is complicating that fight. By expressing his desire for the prospect of a shutdown, he made it all the more difficult to blame Democrats if one comes to fruition. On Tuesday, Democrats were already framing that forthcoming debate.

“President Trump may not like what he sees in this budget deal, but it’s dangerous and irresponsible to respond by calling for a shutdown,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). “Hopefully Republicans in Congress will do for the next budget what they did for this one: Ignore President Trump’s demands, work with Democrats and get it done.”

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