Combat, Not Honeymoon, Would Await Clinton on Capitol Hill
Republicans are unlikely to acknowledge a political mandate if she wins—and Democrats know it.
Rep. Elijah Cummings is ready for war. Or, rather, Elijah Cummings is ready for more war.
The Maryland lawmaker, as top Democrat on the GOP-led committees on Benghazi and Oversight, spends lots of time parrying aggressive Republican probes that are focused directly or indirectly on Hillary Clinton.
If Clinton prevails over Donald Trump in the presidential race, Cummings says he’s not expecting Capitol Hill Republicans to give Clinton much, if any, of a honeymoon period to push her agenda in Congress.
“I think they are going to do everything in their power to make her a one-term president,” Cummings tells National Journal. “No matter what, I think that is going to be the case.”
At most, he sees a “brief honeymoon” for Clinton, noting that the politics are different than Obama’s initial days.
“When President Obama came in, we were sinking quickly, recession-wise,” he said. “That actually put some wind into his sails, no doubt about it, because we had to do something.”
In 2009, Obama, abetted by majorities in both chambers, was able to quickly push stimulus legislation through Congress, and then won sweeping financial-reform and health care legislation in his first two years. But then the GOP took control of the House in 2010, and that was essentially the end of Obama’s major legislative wins.
There are, needless to say, plenty of variables and unknowns about the early days of a potential Clinton administration.
Clinton’s ability to get things done will obviously depend on the strategies adopted by GOP leaders. Will Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell take a firm line against letting any of her priorities advance? And will House Speaker Paul Ryan, who hasn’t ruled out a White House run in 2020, be willing to compromise even if it sullies his own brand among conservatives?
Absent a huge electoral wave in November, Clinton would face a GOP-led House and, at best, a slim Senate majority for Democrats. And unlike Obama, who enjoyed relatively strong favorability ratings throughout his 2008 campaign, polling shows that Clinton is deeply unpopular for a major-party nominee, albeit not as disliked as Donald Trump.
Republicans do not appear interested in acknowledging a legislative mandate for a hypothetical Clinton presidency.
“I am not aware of her legislative agenda,” said Sen. John Cornyn, the majority whip. He added: “We would work with whoever is elected president, whether it is Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton where our principles and our interests align.”
Rep. Darrell Issa said that any candidate hoping to come in with a “mandate” needs to have laid out a detailed agenda and made that the primary point of his or her campaign. So far, he said, neither Trump nor Clinton had done so.
Two early moves could test how much of a mandate that Republicans are willing to recognize. One is GOP willingness to confirm Clinton’s Supreme Court nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia (assuming that the GOP hasn’t backed off opposition to approving Obama’s pick, Merrick Garland, this year).
A second would be the reaction to the large infrastructure package that Clinton has vowed to try and steer through Congress quickly if elected.
“I think that people think the first 120 days, we can do things,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, told National Journal.
“If she starts off doing public works, infrastructure, then that is something that we ought to be able to get the business community on board, labor on board, both parties on board,” he said.
“Maybe things flow out of that. I think we have a real chance for tax reform.”
Brown also expressed optimism about collaboration on the Banking Committee, whether he remains ranking Democrat or assumes the chairmanship should Democrats regain Senate control.
GOP Sen. Susan Collins, who doesn’t back Trump or Clinton, is pessimistic about the coming years.
“I think the next four years are going to be extremely difficult no matter who wins the race for president, because our country is so divided, and neither candidate has exhibited an ability to bring people together,” she told National Journal. “So it is something I am really worried about, given the very serious problems that we have.”
Asked whether Republicans would see Clinton having a mandate after the election, GOP Rep. Tom Cole said it depends on the winner’s victory margin, but he expects that neither Clinton nor Trump will get 50 percent of the vote.
“I actually think either of these candidates is not going to enjoy the kind of position that President Obama enjoyed in January of 2009—supermajorities in both chambers, a very substantial popular mandate, and a strong approval rating,” Cole said.
Cooperation is not impossible to imagine, even in a famously partisan environment. Morning Consult reported Wednesday that some Republicans—notably longtime Sen. Chuck Grassley— are open to working with Clinton, if she wins, on fixes to Obamacare.
“As a practical matter, our Constitution requires you to work with the president, even if you disagree with them,” Grassley told the publication.
Still, it’s doubtful that many of Grassley’s colleagues feel the same way.
Eight years ago, GOP efforts to thwart Obama’s agenda hardened very early in his presidency, starting even before it began, and Clinton will face a big challenge in trying to change that dynamic, especially given that she moved to the left during the primary campaign.
On the bright side for Clinton, she has longtime ties to Capitol Hill that Obama did not enjoy when he took office (though Obama’s vice presidential pick, former Sen. Joe Biden, certainly did).
Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill offered a glass-half-full assessment on the question of a honeymoon or mandate for Clinton.
“I think that’s probably not realistic. I don’t think either one of these candidates could possibly come into office with a huge amount of political capital,” she said.
But McCaskill added: “The difference is that [Clinton] has worked with Republicans before, and she is very good one-on-one working with Republicans and trying to find the sweet spot; she has done it successfully on many occasions, both as first lady and as senator and as secretary of State.”
“She actually does play well with others, and I don’t think Donald Trump has ever played well with others,” she said.