WASHINGTON – Welcome to the United States of Anarchy.
Health care legislation languishes without presidential leadership. The Senate fails to pass a measure crafted by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, fails to pass an outright repeal and even fails to pass a proposal to go back to the drawing board.
Huge majorities in Congress, declining to bless President Donald Trump’s love affair with Vladimir Putin’s regime, vote for new sanctions against Russian officials; legislation passes the Senate, 98 to 2, and the House, 419 to 3. The veto-proof rebuke to the president seizes a foreign policy function from an unreliable commander in chief.
As the deadline looms to avoid a default on U.S. debt, Susan Collins of Maine, a Senate committee chairman, is heard on a hot mic saying she’s “worried” about the president’s stability and calling his administration’s handling of spending matters “just incredibly irresponsible.” She says she doubts Trump even knows how the budget process works.
Trump, baffling and alarming allies, goes on the attack against his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who was an outspoken supporter of Trump’s candidacy. Trump clearly wants Sessions to resign, but Sessions is ignoring him. Sessions’ former colleagues in the Senate back him over his boss – and they hope Trump isn’t crazy enough to start a crisis by firing Sessions and then special counsel Robert Mueller.
Meanwhile, the president continues to sow chaos with perpetual distractions. He fires off a tweet Wednesday announcing he is banning transgender people from serving in the military. The tweet apparently catches even the Pentagon by surprise and draws rebukes from pro-military Republicans who argue that all able-bodied, patriotic Americans should be allowed to serve.
And the ship of state sails on, rudderless. This is what it might look like if there were no president at all: Stuff happens, but nothing gets done. Actually, the majority in Congress has great difficulty even doing nothing.
McConnell and his team scheduled a vote on repealing Obamacare for 11:30 a.m. Wednesday – a proposal that was, by all accounts, destined for failure. But when the appointed hour came, Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., sponsor of the repeal measure, requested a quorum call – a Senate procedure to stall for time.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., rose. “Mr. President, I think there was some confusion – “ he began.
But Enzi objected, Wyden was forbidden to speak, and the quorum call resumed – for 43 silent minutes.
Senators arrived for the scheduled pre-lunch vote. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., went to the clerk’s table to give a thumbs up and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., went to give a thumbs down, and both were told the same thing: “We’re not voting.” Senators milled about the chamber and huddled in clusters while aides and Senate leaders came and went to resolve the impasse, an arcane dispute about points of order and procedures for amendments.
Finally, Enzi spoke: The vote would be postponed for four more hours.
The Sisyphean act, all for a proposal that was going nowhere, encapsulated the whole Dada enterprise of health care legislation. McConnell, thwarted in his quest to round up votes for the House-passed version of Trumpcare, or for his own Trumpcare alternative, or even for a repeal of Obamacare without a replacement, decided instead to risk everything on a “motion to proceed” – a parliamentary maneuver that allows debate to begin.
McConnell won that vote Tuesday by the thinnest possible margin, a 50-50 tie, broken by Vice President Pence. But then McConnell was the proverbial dog that caught the car. Hours later, he brought up his health care legislation, and it went down, 43 to 57, losing nine of his fellow Republicans and falling 17 votes short of what he needed.
On Wednesday came Enzi’s repeal proposal, which wouldn’t have taken effect for two years to buy lawmakers more time to draft an Obamacare replacement. After the four-hour delay, it went down, 45 to 55, with seven Republicans defecting. Senators then voted down, on party lines, a Democratic proposal to send the whole thing back to committee.
Republicans, after complaining for years that they had been jammed by Democrats on the passage of Obamacare, brought their alternative forward in a secretive, rushed, Republican-only process without hearings. Far from giving lawmakers time to “read the bill,” GOP Senate leaders had them vote to begin debate without knowing which legislation they would be debating.
So it goes when a president doesn’t act like one: all fury, no function.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.