President Trump recently told Republican members of Congress that they were about to make beautiful legislative music together.
“This Congress is going to be the busiest Congress we’ve had in decades, maybe ever,” Trump said in his expansive way at the lawmakers’ annual retreat at Philadelphia’s Loews hotel. Tons of legislation! Fantastic legislation!
"We’re actually going to sign the stuff that you’re writing,” he said. “You’re not wasting your time.”
Some historians say Trump and the Republicans have an opportunity that resembles 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson and congressional Democrats in a burst of activity built the Great Society social net that is largely intact today. Legislation aimed at combating poverty and racial injustice included the Medicaid and Medicare health-care programs, the Head Start preschool program, community development, and protection of voting rights.
“This is one of those rare moments when things come together,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University who wrote a book about the battle for the Great Society called The Fierce Urgency of Now.
"The potential is there for action on a lot of things that have been bottled up,” Zelizer said. “We have a disciplined congressional majority and a president who want mostly the same things on a host of big issues. If you’re a conservative, you’re been waiting for this for a long time.”
The common agenda, discussed at length in the Philadelphia meetings Jan. 25 and 26, includes proposals to cut taxes and reform the corporate tax code; repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act; tighten immigration rules; construct a wall along the border with Mexico; roll back regulations on business, including rules the Obama administration created to combat climate change; and spend up to $1 trillion on infrastructure projects.
In other words, the biggest and most ambitious legislative agenda in years.
There are some differences between the politics of now and of the Great Society era, of course.
After Johnson’s landslide win in 1964, liberal Democrats had big congressional majorities, which allowed them to pass bills over the objections of conservative committee chairmen in their own party and defeat filibusters in the Senate. And Johnson, a master politician, seized the opportunity. Politically, the way was paved by the civil rights movement, Zelizer wrote.
Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 and, though he won the Electoral College by a sizable margin, his victory was not as sweeping as Johnson’s. Republicans kept their majorities in the House and Senate in the 2016 election, while Democrats dominated Congress in 1965.
In addition, Trump has relatively low approval ratings in the early weeks of his presidency, and his executive actions, especially a temporary ban on refugees and immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries, have spurred protests nationwide.
But Trump polls strong with his base, and grassroots Republicans are primed to make sure he and Congress deliver on a conservative agenda, Zelizer said. Trump does need to avoid antagonizing lawmakers with distractions, such as his defense of Russia and false assertions of mass voter fraud.
“He could fumble it by making statements that are so beyond the pale for some congressional Republicans that it would be too costly to continue to support the president,” Zelizer said. Trump also needs to be careful not to step too hard on congressional prerogatives with executive actions, he said.
“My sense is that the Republican Congress and the Trump White House will produce less than they advertise,” said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University. She said one-party control is a powerful factor, but partisan polarization leaves little room for GOP defections, and differences among lawmakers – and with Trump – on goals could bring struggles.
“Think about the divisions in the caucuses,” Binder said. “We have deficit hawks and also defense hawks who want to increase military spending. The question is, what happens?”
Already, lawmakers are struggling with the mechanics of repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, which reaches deeply into the economy, and are talking about “repairing” the Obama program instead. Trump, who had promised immediate repeal, acknowledged on Fox News this week that it would take at least well into next year to make changes.
Other tensions between congressional conservatives and Trump were apparent at the recent Philadelphia retreat, undercutting the one-for-all-all-for-one message.
Trump is a populist who believes in big government on some things. He wants to spend on infrastructure repairs, and construction of the border wall could cost up to $20 billion by some estimates. Many lawmakers are worried about how those costs could be accounted for without blowing up the deficit.
“I generally don’t vote for anything that’s not offset,” Sen. James Risch (R., Idaho) told reporters. “Everything has to be offset.”
GOP leadership told their rank and file that the initial draft of their yearlong legislative agenda did not include transportation projects, but Trump insisted on adding the item. Still, no details have emerged, and there seems to be some ambivalence among the lawmakers.
“An infrastructure bill would have to go through Congress,” Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the third-ranking GOP leader in the Senate, said at a news conference. “Obviously, it'd have to be funded. ... Right now, we've got a very focused agenda of things that we want to get done in the next 200 days. And how infrastructure plays into that, we're not sure yet.”
Adding pressure: next year’s midterm elections, already closer than they appear. The window of opportunity could stay open only so long for the GOP. After all, the 1966 midterms, with big Republican gains and concerns about spending and the escalating war in Vietnam, began trimming the sails of Johnson and the Democrats.