Barely three months into the Trump administration, conservatives are already demoralized by their lack of progress on a host of major issues despite unified Republican control of the federal government, and are wondering when they are going to start to see all the winning President Trump promised during the campaign.
The spending deal struck over the weekend to avoid a partial government shutdown is just the latest failure of GOP-controlled Washington to deliver for conservative activists. To them, that bill is part of a larger pattern of putting off fights with the Democrats for another day only for tomorrow to never come — a trend they were already experiencing with run-of-the-mill Republicans, but one they hoped would end under Trump.
"In December, the plan was to do a short-term continuing resolution so the Trump administration and a Republican Congress could deliver on conservative priorities," said Dan Holler, vice president of communications and government relations at Heritage Action. "Those are hard to find in this bill, and now conservatives will be told that we have to punt until September to deliver on those promises. That won't happen either unless Republican leaders are willing to call the Democrats' bluff."
The spending bill funds Planned Parenthood, sanctuary cities, refugee resettlement, a Puerto Rico bailout and other Democratic priorities without any money for Trump's proposed border wall. The president had initially demanded wall construction be included in the measure to fund the federal government for the remainder of this fiscal year, only to back down as the deadline loomed.
All this took place even though Republicans control the White House and both houses of Congress. "Republicans expected a home run," said Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va. "This isn't even a single. It's an error."
But conservatives are also wondering what to make of Republican majorities that cannot achieve other goals, like the repeal of Obamacare or securing the border.
"Why does it feel like everything is imploding?" former Jim DeMint and Ted Cruz aide Amanda Carpenter asked on Twitter Monday. "GOP should be having the time of our lives. Full control. And no one is having any fun."
Why does it feel like everything is imploding? GOP should be having the time of our lives. Full control. And no one is having any fun.— Amanda Carpenter (@amandacarpenter) May 1, 2017
"WH in chaos. Congress not passing bills. Fox News imploding. Heritage in shatters," Carpenter added. "Are we having fun yet? When does it get good???"
"GOP control of Congress. Democrat control of Congress," conservative columnist Michelle Malkin tweeted Monday, quoting Hillary Clinton's famous line from the Benghazi hearings. "What difference, at this point, does it make?"
"We fight like hell to send all these Republicans to Congress just to see them go act like Democrats and nothing changes," tweeted Charlie Kirk, executive director of the conservative students group Turning Points USA. "Disgusting."
"It is time for Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell to step up and give the American people what their party promised — a border wall. Not to mention the repeal of Obamacare and a whole host of other promises," wrote Conservative Review's Rob Eno. "The GOP majority should not be afraid of the Democrat minority."
Brat won't go so far as to say there isn't a dime's worth of difference between the two parties. "To be honest, it would probably be way worse," he said of the spending bill if Democrats controlled Congress. "But there are way too many Democratic priorities in here. Everybody is left wondering, 'Did Trump win the election or not?'"
"When we get a Republican president, we want to do Republican policy," he added. "Where is it?"
Conservative activists say they haven't seen enough it yet from Congress, pointing to the spending bill as the latest frustrating example.
"Negotiating behind closed doors is no way to fund the federal government, and it creates only more distrust from conservative grassroots activists, who took notice when Chuck Schumer bragged that policy riders to which Democrats would have objected were removed from the bill," said Jason Pye, policy director for the conservative FreedomWorks advocacy group. "Members have three days to read a nearly 1,700-page bill that spends more than $1.16 trillion."
"If we would pass 12 separate appropriations bills as the law prescribes, then at most only 1/12th of government spending would be jeopardized," complained Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky. "Instead, we create a crisis big enough to get everyone to vote for everything in one bad bill."
Republicans are dealing with a small Senate majority that does not have the numbers to break Democratic legislative filibusters, though they did confirm Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. In the House, the GOP caucus that is fractured between staunch conservatives and jittery centrists who fear for their seats in 2018.
The Trump administration and Republican congressional leaders have defended the omnibus spending package in the context of these political realities.
"I think the president got a lot out of this bill, most specifically, $21 billion to help rebuild the military," White House press secretary Sean Spicer said at Monday's briefing. "I think that was something that he was very proud to campaign on."
"We're talking about 2017 funding, right? So this is something that most presidents would walk into office and that would be done," Spicer said later. "Because the last Congress didn't do this under President Obama, we have an opportunity to get some of the president's priorities infused to the last five months of 2017."
"When the fiscal year starts the end of September, we will have an opportunity to really infuse the president's priorities," he added. "But I think there's a lot there."
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., praised the "boots on the border" that the spending package makes possible.
"From day one, President Trump has made it clear that securing the border is a top national priority," Ryan said in a statement. "Republicans in Congress couldn't agree more. That's why this week, Congress will vote for the biggest increase in border security funding in a long time."
Ryan additionally hailed the defense spending increases as a victory over the Democrats.
Spicer also argued Monday, "With respect to border security, [Trump] got $1.52 billion into the current language that was posted."
Immigration hawks weren't mollified, however.
"Republican congressional leaders failed to deliver on many of the key immigration enforcement promises that helped propel Donald Trump to the White House and convince voters to entrust them with control of both houses of Congress," said Federation for American Immigration Reform executive director Bob Dane in a statement provided to the Washington Examiner. "The art of this new budget deal is nothing to be 'happy about' because it is a sell-out to the American worker and delays much needed border security."
Some conservatives even believed Trump could have won a border wall showdown, despite the Republicans' past history of taking the blame for government shutdowns.
"If the reason for the shutdown [would have been] that Democrats in Congress will not agree to spend a dollar to erect a physical barrier on the Southern border, I actually think a lot of the public would rally around Trump digging in and saying this is too important to our national safety and the safety of our communities," said longtime conservative activist Gary Bauer.
Conservatives have been bothered by what they see as a lack of gumption in Republican leadership for over a decade. Trump wasn't the most ideologically conservative candidate, but the rank-and-file Right embraced him as a fighter who would punch Democrats in the nose.
Conservative talk radio giant Rush Limbaugh said of the Washington political establishment Monday, "[T]he Republicans just don't stand up to 'em. That much is abundantly clear. Which is why Trump was elected."
Now even under Trump, conservative activists see their agenda being pushed back and delayed. Their patience in many cases is starting to wear thin.
"The budget comes out like this and the base at home is really ticked off," said Brat. "Explain to us when the Trump agenda is going to kick in."