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Donald Trump’s long shadow exposes Republicans’ internal division on Capitol Hill

The presidential candidate’s growing influence among Republican lawmakers is causing cracks in the party, leading to a day with several lost votes

Mike Johnson
The president of the House of Representatives, Republican Mike Johnson, in an appearance at the Capitol this Wednesday.LEAH MILLIS (REUTERS)

The U.S. Congress was a hive of activity on Wednesday. On one side, Democrats were trying to push through economic assistance to Ukraine. On the other, Republican lawmakers were trying to figure out what steps to take after a perfect storm of congressional humiliations on Tuesday: the abandonment of a bill on border control and aid to Ukraine and Israel; the failure of their impeachment attempt in the House of Representatives against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas; the defeat of their bill on assistance to Israel. The chaos has challenged its leaders in both chambers and has made clear only one thing: the outsized influence of its foreseeable presidential candidate, former president Donald Trump, on every decision of the party.

The immigration and national security assistance bill finally came before the Senate floor on Wednesday. As expected, the Republicans, who had been calling for such a measure for months, struck it down: it received 50 votes in favor, to 49 against, but needed a supermajority of 60 to pass. Only four Republicans supported the bill in the end, even though it was agreed upon after four months of delicate bipartisan negotiations.

Democrats now plan to bring up for a vote this very Wednesday the 118 billion dollars in aid to Ukraine, Israel and the Indo-Pacific without contributions for the control of the border with Mexico, in an attempt to increase the pressure on the Republicans. And they find a reason for optimism: if until now they were on the defensive on the immigration issue, given the increase in irregular entries, they can now accuse the Republicans of inaction to solve the problem.

The rejection of the bill represented a U-turn for Republicans, who had demanded since October a measure to tighten control of the southern border as a condition for giving the green light to more aid for Ukraine. But in January, even before the contents of the bill were made public, Trump spoke out against what he described as a “terrible” proposal. The former president wanted to build his campaign on the situation at the border, after last year’s record-breaking number of illegal crossings, with 2.4 million detected.

Trump’s opposition marked a turning point. Almost immediately, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mike Johnson, assured that the bill would be “dead on arrival” in his chamber. Other legislators in the party were quick to speak out against it as well.

“Some of them have been very clear with me, they have political differences with the bill,” the Republican senator James Lankford, one of the bill negotiatiors, declared. “They say it’s the wrong time to solve the problem. We’ll let the presidential election solve this problem,” he lamented.

“When former President Trump said he didn’t want Republicans to solve the border problem, that he wanted it as a campaign issue, Speaker Johnson did a 180 degree about face and obediently changed his tune,” denounced the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, on Tuesday. In a similar vein, President Joe Biden accused his rival in a speech of preferring to turn this issue into an electoral weapon instead of resolving it and urged Republicans to show guts and vote in favor of the bill.

But as it has become clear that, barring a major surprise, Trump will be the Republican candidate in the November presidential election, his influence in Congress and in the party, which seemed to have diminished after the midterm elections, has continued to expand. And with it, the influence of his supporters in the most extremist wing of the political formation is also growing. Especially in the House of Representatives, where the Republicans only hold the majority by a handful of seats, and every vote counts.

Trump’s rise, and Tuesday’s fiasco, has raised questions about McConnell’s future at the helm of Senate Republicans. The 81-year-old veteran lawmaker and the former president are sworn enemies. And McConnell is in the crosshairs of the right wing for his support for aid to Ukraine and his willingness to work with Democrats on the border bill. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, from the most radical group, has already publicly called for him to resign. Although the Republican leader is opposed to it, and his fellow party members cannot stop him, whispers are gaining strength in the corridors of the Capitol about the extent to which he is in a position to maintain the discipline of his group. Or what will happen if Trump regains the presidency in November.

Doubts also extend to the House of Representatives. In one of the biggest tests of his first hundred days as Speaker, Johnson saw two of his most ambitious bills collapse in a matter of just ten minutes on Tuesday.

The impeachment of Mayorkas, which the hard wing of the party has been promising its electorate throughout Biden’s term, was defeated by the votes of three Republican congressmen, who sided with the Democrats, considering that what the Constitution provides as a last resort for very serious crimes should not be used in a mere political dispute. In the immediate aftermath, the proposal for more than $17 billion in aid to Israel fell far short of the two-thirds majority it needed to pass.

In part, the Republican faux pas in the Mayorkas case was due to failures in the calculation of the necessary votes. Several lawmakers of this party are ill and could not come to vote. A Democratic congressman who had recently undergone surgery, whose presence was not expected by Johnson and his team, did come to vote.

Other Republican lawmakers acknowledged the complex situation of their party, divided in internal fights between the pro-Trump and the more moderate faction, while struggling to maintain its small majority. “We’re talking about governing in a majority and we can’t even pass a rule, so that speaks volumes of where we’re at as a conference… I would like to think we could look past this moment and recognize that things get far worse for us if we are thrust back into the minority” in the November elections, noted Congressman Steve Womack of Arkansas.

But it doesn’t look like the infighting - and Trump’s influence - will cease any time soon. Johnson faces two imminent tests against the more hawkish wing of his party. On the one hand, two congressmen close to Trump, Elise Stefanik and Matt Gaetz, have introduced a draft resolution that would declare that the former president “did not participate in an insurrection or rebellion against the United States.” This is an attempt to protect the candidate from lawsuits demanding his withdrawal from the campaign for his alleged role in his supporters’ assault on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021. On the other, the deadline to deal with a new debt ceiling extension and prevent the Administration from running out of operating funds is approaching. The hard wing already reproached him in January for reaching an initial agreement with the Democrats, and will examine very carefully what he is going to do on this occasion.

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