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Recess just started for Congress, and it’s not going to be much fun for Republicans

The Senate left town for the rest of the summer Thursday, bringing a historically unproductive period of governance to a close for Republicans, who failed to produce any major legislative achievements despite controlling Congress and the White House.

The Affordable Care Act they vowed to undo stands untouched. The sweeping tax overhaul they pledged has not materialized. A worsening relationship between President Trump and congressional Republicans threatens to create new roadblocks in September, when a looming funding crisis could shut down the government.

By their own accounts, Republicans have failed to enact the ambitious agenda they embarked upon when Trump and the GOP majorities swept into power in January. The president has fallen well short of the legislative pace his two predecessors set in their first six months on the job.

The lack of a signature accomplishment Republican lawmakers can highlight at home this month has given rise to a new level of finger-pointing and soul-searching in a party that stood triumphant eight months ago after winning back full control of the federal government.

“I think there’s a level of frustration,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said in an interview. “It’s more like a football team that knows that it can be good but is fumbling and committing too many boneheaded errors.”

(Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

On Thursday, Trump took another parting shot at lawmakers for failing to pass a health-care bill. “Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low. You can thank Congress, the same people that can’t even give us HCare!” he tweeted, a day after he grudgingly signed an international sanctions bill that the Senate passed 98 to 2.

The Senate conducted a flurry of business on what was effectively its final workday of the summer, confirming dozens of executive-branch nominees to the State Department, the Treasury Department and other agencies. In addition, two bipartisan pairs of senators unveiled legislation to prevent Trump from firing special counsel Robert S. Mueller III without cause, and a group of Republican senators released a border security plan.

But as they wrapped up their work this week, Republican senators were eager to turn the page on the sharp political and policy disagreements and constant White House chaos that stalled their endeavors.

“I think we can spend time thinking about what didn’t happen,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “[But] I don’t have enough hours in my day to do that. I’m just focused on what we’re going to be doing going forward.”

Many GOP lawmakers are still numb from last week’s failure to repeal and replace the ACA. While the House had earlier worked through painful disagreements and false starts to pass a health-care bill — and cheered with the president in a Rose Garden ceremony afterward — the Senate failed in a dramatic early-morning vote last Friday.

The breakdown of the effort to fulfill a seven-year promise left a particularly bitter taste in the mouths of Republicans departing from both sides of the Capitol. Some blamed Trump, saying he did not sell the plan aggressively enough, or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for failing to deliver. Others were critical of Murkowski and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who were adamant in their opposition to the health-care proposals that McConnell put together in secret. The two joined with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to kill a last-ditch bill to keep talks alive.

(Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

“We had three chairmen who went rogue on the Republican caucus and cost us this vote,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), a Trump ally. Of the failed-health-care effort, he said: “That’s a problem. We spent a lot of energy on that. And we’re not done yet.”

Now, there is a tension about the way forward. Trump and some conservatives have said they are determined to keep prioritizing the repeal-and-replace effort. But Senate Republican leaders have moved on to a tax overhaul, the next big GOP target, with some planning more-modest fixes to the ACA on the side.

The tax effort, which lawmakers hope to dive deep into next month, could prove to be another tricky venture. Republicans must resolve intraparty disagreements and juggle other pressing deadlines as they pursue a broad overhaul.

McConnell is especially proud of confirming Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, a feat widely hailed in the Republican Party. Congress also passed a slate of regulatory changes under the Congressional Review Act, rolling back Obama-era rules.

But when it comes to the core policy issues they campaigned on, Republicans foundered.

“I think we’ve had one of the busier legislative years,” said Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). “We just have not had a successful year as it relates to the large items.”

By contrast, Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush were able to advance some big-ticket items in their first six months on the job.

By the 2009 August recess, Obama and the Democratic Congress had enacted a sweeping economic stimulus, had confirmed Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court and were in the midst of a health-care push that would culminate in the Affordable Care Act a few months later.

In 2001, Bush and Republican congressional leaders ushered in a $1.35 trillion tax cut and his “No Child Left Behind” education policy had passed the Senate and House with bipartisan support. He would sign the measure the following January.

“It’s a whole different era,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who was in the Senate during both presidencies. “The population of this country is more ideologically divided than it was in the year 2000.”

Lately, it has been the divisions between Trump and congressional Republicans that have stood out. The president’s antagonistic tweets against Senate Republicans and his threats against recalcitrant lawmakers during the health-care drive heightened tensions.

Already, Republicans on Capitol Hill had been growing frustrated with what many saw as distracting statements from the president via Twitter and unhelpful personnel drama in the White House. Meanwhile, investigations into Russian meddling in the election have continually raised questions about the conduct of Trump and his close associates.

Many wish Trump had channeled his energy into promoting the health-care bill more in public. “This issue was outsourced to Congress,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) said last Friday as the House left to start its August recess.

Republicans are also blaming Democrats for obstructing the GOP agenda. For much of the year, Democratic lawmakers have largely united against Trump’s plans.

“Democrats made it their goal in life to obstruct everything that we tried to do,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), McConnell’s top deputy. But on health care, Republicans took advantage of a rule that would have allowed passage of a bill along party lines, had no more than two GOP senators defected.

“This place is hard to run if you’re not willing to talk to the other side,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “I hope that there’s been some lessons learned about how difficult it is to govern with only one party working the agenda.”

The Senate will hold some pro-forma sessions throughout August and early September. Democrats had expressed concerns that Trump might try to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions while lawmakers are away if they did not hold such gatherings. But there will be no more roll-call votes in the Senate until Sept. 5.

McConnell hopes Congress can finish a tax overhaul by the end of the year, he said this week. But self-imposed deadlines have come to mean little lately, as Republicans have already blown past many of them. Vice President Pence, for example, said in a speech last December that before the spring, “we’re going to cut taxes across the board.”

McConnell has argued there is still time before next year’s midterms for the GOP government to do more. “Last time I looked, Congress goes on for two years,” he said last month.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), up for reelection in 2018, said this week that the four biggest priorities for this Congress are health care, a tax overhaul, a regulatory overhaul and ensuring the appointment of judges he called “principled constitutionalists.”

“If we deliver on those four, this could be the most productive Congress in decades,” Cruz said.

If “we fail on all four,” Cruz added, “then this moment in time will be a truly heartbreaking missed opportunity.”

Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report

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