Trump's party controls Congress, but he won't have free rein

Donald Trump, denouncing all that ails America during the Republican National Convention in June, had a reassuring message for his supporters: “I alone can fix it.” Congressional experts beg to differ.

Republicans do not have 60-vote majority needed to render the Senate filibuster-proof

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks at his election night rally in Manhattan, New York, U.S., November 9, 2016. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Donald Trump, denouncing all that ails America during the Republican National Convention in June, had a reassuring message for his supporters: "I alone can fix it."

He alone? Congressional experts this week begged to differ, despite a decisive election outcome that will put president-elect Trump in the White House and give his Republicans majorities in both the House and the Senate.

Trump's executive authority only goes so far. And there's also the matter of the upper chamber's rules permitting filibuster, which could constrain his agenda.

To get what he wants, he'll need friends in Congress.

The Republicans are expected to retain control of the 100-seat chamber with at least 51 seats, leaving them eight votes shy of the 60-vote majority needed to render the Senate "filibuster-proof."

Trump has vowed to repeal Obamacare, pull out of "bad" trade deals and fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court with a conservative-approved justice.

"Maybe Trump really believes this stuff that he really can 'fix' all of this," said Steve Billet, who lectures on legislative affairs at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. "But he's going to come to the conclusion shortly that Congress can very easily shut down anything he wants to do." 

[Trump]'s going to come to the conclusion shortly that Congress can very easily shut down anything he wants to do.- Steve Billet, lecturer, George Washington University

Obama has issued 249 executive orders to bypass congressional gridlock, according to the Federal Register, imposing certain FDA labelling rules, boosting overtime pay for workers, establishing the world's largest marine-protected area off the coast of Hawaii and protecting as many as 700,000 undocumented immigrants from deportation.

Trump has vowed to cancel Obama's executive actions.

"And he can do that day one," said Billet.

TPP dead, NAFTA in question

Withdrawing from an international commitment such as the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump said he would "rip up," or the Paris agreement on climate change would be more complicated, owing to those being multilateral agreements.

This is the distribution of seats in the U.S. Senate after the 2016 election. (CBC)

"We're not alone in that, as it involves a number of other European powers, and we'd have to renegotiate in conjunction with them," Billet said.

Trump may be a Republican, but he's an unconventional Republican who hasn't ingratiated himself with party leadership in Congress, sparring publicly with House Speaker Paul Ryan as well as senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

His ideas also run counter to a conservative orthodoxy that is more pro-trade, generally favours cuts on entitlements and takes a softer line on immigration.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is already dead in the water, after Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said the 12-nation trade deal will not come up for a vote in the post-election "lame duck" session. 

But Trump has slammed NAFTA as "one of the worst trade deals ever." He became a champion of the Rust Belt, which blames trade pacts for the decimation of once-thriving manufacturing economies.

The treaty includes a provision that a signatory may withdraw six months after providing written notice of same to the other signatories.

For his part, Paul Sracic, an expert on trade policy with Youngstown State University, doesn't believe Trump would actually pull out of NAFTA, lest he ignite a damaging international trade war.

Trump's threat to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, is one place he will find alignment, though it would require a 60-vote so-called supermajority to completely undo the president's signature domestic-policy achievement.

This is the distribution of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives after the 2016 election. (CBC)

While the health care law might not necessarily be killed off entirely, there are congressional devices that could be deployed to essentially deliver death by a thousand cuts.

Congress, for instance, could roll back on some of the laws using a budgetary process known as "reconciliation."

Introduction of a piece of legislation would ordinarily run the risk of being stalled by filibuster by a minority party — in this case, the Democrats. But anti-Obamacare legislation would be baked into a "reconciliation" package that is designed to deal with budget concerns. This budget process would not be subject to filibuster, requiring only a simple majority (51 votes) rather than the 60 to get a repeal.

There will be a serious effort to try to undermine and repeal large portions of the bill, said John McDonough, a senior adviser to the U.S. Senate committee that helped craft the Affordable Care Act. 

"They got a reconciliation bill through earlier this year, which of course got vetoed by the president," he said. 

Still, it was a show of force. 

"And if Donald Trump had been president last January, he would have signed it."

Nuclear option possible

The major story in the end will be a power grab for the Supreme Court. President Trump will be a nominator-in-chief, potentially appointing four conservative-leaning Supreme Court justices as the current roster ages out or retires. There is currently one vacancy, after the death this year of arch-conservative Antonin Scalia, but the Trump nominations would presumably tip the nine-member bench to the ideological right for at least a generation.

When it comes time for Trump to nominate Scalia's replacement, Democratic senators could filibuster. Were that to happen, Republicans could extend the so-called nuclear option to the high court. The rule change to curb obstruction would lower the hurdle for confirming presidential appointees from 60 votes to 51, overcoming a filibuster threat.

The irony is that it was the Democrats, under former Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who had invoked the nuclear option in 2013 to put through judicial and executive nominations.

At the time, McConnell, then the Republican Senate minority leader, warned the shoe would some day be on the other foot.

"I say to my friends on the other side of the aisle, you'll regret this," he said. "And you may regret it a lot sooner than you think."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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