While President Donald Trump has often spoken about the sweeping powers of his office, a review of Congress’ first session of the Trump era shows that some of the most substantial bills passed actually put more checks on the president’s authority.
Topping the list are the sanctions on Russia that Trump begrudgingly signed into law this week, which cannot be loosened without congressional approval. In a written statement, Trump said the bill “encroaches on the executive branch’s authority to negotiate.”
“By limiting the Executive’s flexibility, this bill makes it harder for the United States to strike good deals for the American people, and will drive China, Russia and North Korea much closer together,” he added in the statement.
But that’s not how many Senate Republicans see it.
“I didn’t vote for a bill to try to curtail President Trump or his power. Quite the contrary. I voted for the bill because I want to back him up,” Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., not someone who publicly dissents with the president often, said.
Sen. John McCain, at home in Arizona receiving cancer treatment, rebuked Trump over the internet for a tweet Thursday in which he seemed to blame worsening Russia relations on the new sanctions, and by extension, Congress.
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 3, 2017
McCain mirrored Trump’s tweet but assigned the blame elsewhere.
Our relationship w/ Russia is at dangerous low. You can thank Putin for attacking our democracy, invading neighbors & threatening our allies
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) August 3, 2017
While the Russia sanctions package, which also included penalties for Iran and North Korea, was arguably the biggest piece of legislation Congress passed before recessing, the Senate did approve numerous bills that curtailed executive authority, just not Trump’s.
Under the Congressional Review Act, which gives lawmakers 60 working days to overturn new federal rules, Congress rolled back 14 Obama-era regulations, including ones preventing pollution from coal mining and potentially restricting mentally ill people from buying guns.
“These resolutions have provided Americans substantial relief from the burden of unfair and unwise regulations,” the office of Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said in a statement in May, as the CRA window closed.
Cumulatively, Trump has signed more bills into law that roll back Obama’s executive actions than his own, but the Senate left for August recess Thursday with several other major actions on the table that would check Trump’s authority.
First, the Senate has made clear that they will act to override Trump’s decision if he refuses to authorize the next installment of monthly payments to health insurance companies in order to help them cover low-income people, known as cost-sharing reductions (CSRs).
"I’m hopeful that the administration, the president, will keep making them,” Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the third-ranking Senate Republican, said Monday. “And if he doesn’t we’ll have to figure out from a congressional standpoint what we do.”
The chairman of the committee that deals with health issues, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has urged Trump to approve the CSRs for August and September, and has said that once Congress returns from recess, the committee will work on a bill guaranteeing insurance funds for all of 2018, including CSR payments.
Another area in which Republicans are pushing back on the president’s authority is special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Two bipartisan groups of senators, Sens. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Chris Coons, D-Del., and Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., have introduced bills that would protect the special counsel against being fired without reason.
Tillis and Coons’ bill would allow any special counsel to challenge their removal in court, while the Graham/Booker measure would prevent the firing of a special counsel without judicial review.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office did not weigh in on whether or not the Kentucky Republican would take up either of those measures in the fall, noting that both bills were introduced the day the Senate recessed and would likely need time for senators to digest.