Trump′s relationship with Republicans in Congress off to rocky start | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 03.02.2017
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Trump's relationship with Republicans in Congress off to rocky start

Two weeks into office, Donald Trump is already irking Republican lawmakers. His decision to implement policy unilaterally through executive action runs contrary to the traditional White House-Capitol Hill relationship.

The early days of any new presidency are often referred to as the "honeymoon phase." It is the time when the White House tries to foster a cordial relationship with Congress and attempts to tackle some of the more popular items on the agenda. For Donald Trump, it has been anything but a honeymoon.

As was his way during the campaign, the real estate tycoon-turned president has spurned traditional political norms, disparaged the establishment and pursued policy that plays directly to the supporter base that got him elected. Trump has signed executive orders and memos instituting a travel ban, calling for the construction of a US-Mexico border wall and halting funds for global organizations that provide abortion services.

Party backlash

While taking executive action is not necessarily unusual for a new president, the significance and repercussions of Trump's measures have sparked backlash from fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Numerous GOP lawmakers complained publicly that they were not consulted before the White House implemented a travel ban on refugees and foreigners from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, perhaps Trump's most vocal Capitol Hill critics from within the Republican party, released a joint statement saying the travel ban "was not properly vetted" and risks "harmful results."

"Ultimately, we fear this executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism," the two said.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker called the measure "poorly implemented" and said the Trump administration "should immediately make appropriate revisions."

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Unpredictable governing

"I think [members of Congress] are irritated at having been cut out of his initial decision-making, especially the executive orders," John Sides, an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University, told Deutsche Welle. "This leaves them scrambling to understand his decisions and craft a response."

By acting on his own and not implementing policy together with fellow Republicans in Congress, a body used to being kept in the loop, Trump may be putting his relationship with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and thus his ability to enact legislation, at risk.

"I think it is one thing to be unpredictable the way he has with the public, to announce these initiatives - I think he sees a sense of drama there that gets attention," said Ken Collier, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Stephen F. Austin State University, who has studied the relationship between Congress and the White House. "The problem is members of Congress don't like surprises. Yes, you can surprise the public with an announcement, but [lawmakers] want to be consulted. They want some sense that they were listened to along the way."

USA Amerika protestiert gegen den Einreiseverbot für Muslime New York (Getty Images/S. Keith)

Trump's travel ban has sparked protests at airports around the country

Trump's approach to governing has not just rubbed Congress the wrong way - a Quinnipiac poll put his approval rating at the end of his first week in office at 36 percent. If Trump is looking for support from Congress for his divisive policies, low favorability numbers could prove troublesome.

"When a president has high approval, members of Congress are hesitant to challenge them," said Collier. "But once their approval is low, they feel much more free about resistance. And when it gets low enough, they see it as an asset to actually push back against a president."

Nominee support no indicator

Nevertheless, Trump has managed to garner strong backing from the GOP for his Cabinet nominations, as well as praise for his Supreme Court choice, Neil Gorsuch. But according to Sides, support for presidential nominees is nothing out of the ordinary.

"We should expect a high degree of party loyalty from Republicans when it comes to Trump's cabinet nominations," Sides said. "It's quite rare for nominees not to be confirmed, period, and it would be all the more remarkable for that to happen when the president's party controls Congress."

It is policy issues, where the "political implications are broader," and fellow Republican lawmakers are likely to raise objections, said Collier. Trump has the luxury of a party majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, but as Barack Obama found out in 2009, pushing legislation through Congress can still be difficult even with such an advantage.

"I think things look easier for Trump than they are," Collier told DW. "The Republicans are not just going to fall in line. They are going to have significant disagreements with the president, even though he is from their own party."

Learning the 'language'

Put simply, if Trump doesn't learn to engage with Congress, he is going to struggle to achieve legislative success.

"Donald Trump is not well known to members of Congress and he is just not familiar with the kind of things that makes members of Congress tick," said Collier. "They have a kind of politics all to their own. They are used to being shown a certain kind of respect and deference and Trump's going to have to learn that language."

Ronald Reagan 1984 (AP)

Even anti-establishment campaigners like Reagan ultimately tried to make nice with Congress

Yet, if his first two weeks in office are anything to go off, Trump's style is, among other things, unusual. For one thing, says Collier, the White House is so far not working with Republicans in Congress on issues where they traditionally have common ground.

"I would have thought that going to Congress early for some money for the border wall would have been a nice easy vote to win," Collier said. "A lot of Republicans are for that. It seems like it would have been a good opportunity to start off with an issue in which they were ready to vote the way the president would. But then the president acts unilaterally."

Even presidents who have campaigned on a more anti-establishment agenda in the past, like Ronald Reagan, ultimately made an effort to make nice with Congress after taking office. Trump, it seems, has not yet taken such steps.

"I just haven't seen a whole lot of olive branches coming from either side of this relationship so far," said Collier.

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