Congress is out of session for August, and it is a good thing for Republicans that it is. Were the House in session, Democrats would be crawling over each other to reach the hopper to introduce resolutions calling for the condemnation of President Donald Trump for his appalling defense of the Nazi terror in Charlottesville.
Come early September, when Congress reconvenes, you can bank on multiple resolutions being filed as members compete to author the most pointed language to condemn, censure or impeach Trump. It is unlikely that the Democratic leadership would, at this point, countenance a full-blown impeachment strategy, but they will surely exert no resistance whatsoever to full-throated resolutions that call for censure.
Republicans will find themselves in a highly compromised position. September is a do-or-die month for any majority party. The looming September 30th end of Fiscal Year 2017 means that, absent passage of over a dozen individual appropriations bills (no chance), Speaker Ryan will once again find himself in the same conundrum as did John Boehner for six years. Confronted with a resolute Freedom Caucus wing that relishes a government shut-down, the Speaker will have to seek votes from Nancy Pelosi and her Democratic Caucus for appropriations legislation as well as for raising the debt ceiling.
Democrats would love to leverage some policy concessions from the weakened Republicans, but they are never willing to shut down the government to achieve that end. Unlike Republicans, Democrats need to burnish the image of government, which is their instrument of policy implementation, and shutdowns do little to bolster public esteem in the institution. But don’t be surprised if the quid pro quo for Democratic buy-in on a Continuing Resolution is a demand that Ryan schedule a floor vote on a resolution censuring President Trump over his disgraceful and divisive language in the wake of the Charlottesville demonstration. You can bet that the Democratic resolution will be loaded up with language that will make the hair stand up on the back of Ryan’s neck.
Acquiescing to that Democratic demand will send the Freedomites and their Trumpian base into unbridled fury. Ryan might try to appease the Right by offering up instead his own resolution which is a lukewarm hand slap of Trump, daring the Democrats to vote it down. “You’ll get one opportunity to censure Trump,” Ryan might say, “and it is my resolution. Take it or leave it.”
Ah, but the Democrats don’t have to take it or leave it. They can elongate the fight and keep Ryan on the hot seat by initiating a discharge petition on their own hard-nosed censure resolution. If no action on that resolution is taken in committee within 30 days, the discharge process allows 218 House members to sign a petition that would bring the measure to the floor despite the opposition of Ryan and the Republicans. That layover period means that the censure debate would pervade the fall, which could not possibly please Ryan as he contemplates the appropriations and debt ceiling deadlines, let alone his planned pivot to tax reform.
Moreover, while every Democrat would eagerly sign such a petition, a discharge effort would put enormous pressure on vulnerable Republicans to sign the petition or be accused of protecting the embattled president. Voting for the Democratic measure will almost certainly ensure a primary challenge from an aggrieved Trump supporter in their district; if they won’t, they may be highly vulnerable to the charge of insulating Trump.
All of this may seem speculative at this point, but it seems a foregone conclusion that Democrats will demand an unprecedented censure of the President of the United States as soon as the House reconvenes That near certainty means that Ryan and the Republicans will be forced to make a decision fraught with political danger, whichever way they turn: coddle or censure.