The challenge facing congressional Republicans in delivering on their ambitious health-care, budget and tax ideas keeps getting steeper.
To meet their goals — putting in place a replacement for Obamacare by Easter, then a new budget and then sweeping tax reform by August — Republicans need a strong partner in President Donald Trump to push past political obstacles. But Trump's wild weekend wiretapping accusations against his predecessor weakened him.
At the most rudimentary level, Trump's evidence-free Twitter tirade immediately dominated the attention of the political world. They threw fellow Republicans on the defensive in responding to allegations from Trump that both FBI director James Comey and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper immediately moved to discredit. Republican lawmakers were tepid at best in standing up for the president.
More significantly, the credibility of an American president is an indivisible asset. Trump began his presidency laboring under widespread skepticism about his truthfulness; an NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll last week showed only 34 percent of Americans rate him highly for honesty. Anything that further erodes faith in his honesty makes it more difficult for him to persuasively advocate for Republican priorities — including on health care and tax reform.
Between intraparty disagreement and blowback from Democrats and independents, Republicans were already struggling to deliver on their ambitious legislative agenda. They have yet to act on their commitment to repeal and replace Obamacare, though they have signaled they will release separate bills to reduce Medicaid funding and roll back Obamacare tax provisions this week.
Among their core health-care problems: Republican governors and congressional moderates want to prevent millions of Americans from losing health insurance they got under Obamacare, but GOP conservatives oppose measures that would help do so, on the grounds they would establishment a new entitlement that amounts to "Obamacare-lite." Even Trump himself has said he would not support reductions in insurance coverage.
Republican senators have made clear they oppose major elements of the House approach on both health care and tax reform. But they have not advanced plans of their own.
For now, House Speaker Paul Ryan aims to kick-start momentum by beginning the legislative process on health care, whatever the ultimate destination. As one Ryan friend told me, the speaker's principal motivation at this stage is holding his Republican caucus together while political storms swirl around him.
That's what Ryan's predecessor John Boehner tried to do before conservative dissidents forced him out.