Republicans fear that President Trump has weakened their position in legislative negotiations by caving on his demand for border wall funding.
Trump on Tuesday continued to walk back his threat to withhold $7 billion for Obamacare subsidies from an omnibus spending bill and let the government shut down on Saturday if Democrats opposed a dollar-for-dollar swap in funding for a wall along the Southern border.
The legislation, to fund the government through Oct. 1, was expected to include an appropriation for border enforcement, a provision the White House was touting as a win and part of necessary planning in advance of wall construction.
But by throwing down the gauntlet and retreating on a key priority, Republican insiders and conservative activists alike worry that Trump has undercut the party's advantage and emboldened Democrats in future talks impacting all sorts of policies.
"He violated the basic rules of negotiations the same way Republicans have been preemptively surrendering on every budget bill until now," said Daniel Horowitz, senior editor of Conservative Review. "The difference is that Trump was elected precisely to change the culture of preemptive surrender and weakness in negotiating with Democrats."
The White House took exception.
Press secretary Sean Spicer said the administration secured resources to finance pre-construction of the border wall. Trump will seek additional funds, he added, so that he can break ground, in the next round of budget talks for the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1.
"There will be a wall built," Spicer said. "Nothing has changed on the president's priorities."
Senate Democrats are in the minority but control more than enough votes to filibuster the spending bill.
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York vowed to do so, even at risk of a partial government shutdown, if Trump insisted on money for the wall in exchange for financing $7 billion in Obamacare subsidies that flow to low and middle-income Americans.
Trump relented, despite protestations to the contrary.
The spending blueprint that was emerging 72 hours before the deadline was free of money earmarked directly for wall construction. Meanwhile, the Affordable Care Act subsidies, known as "Cost Sharing Reductions," were still on the table for inclusion, a senior Republican House aide confirmed.
Democrats said Trump misjudged internal Democratic politics and overestimated his leverage.
Trump's hawkish immigration rhetoric makes it difficult for Democrats to compromise without risking a liberal backlash. And although Obamacare was enacted without Republican votes, Democrats feel absolved of responsibility given the GOP's full control of government and collapse of their repeal bill.
"He seems to think that by sheer force of personality, he can get Congress to bend to his will," said Jim Manley, an aide to Harry Reid when the Nevada Democrat was the Senate majority leader. "That is not how it works."
Republicans said this latest episode is another example of Trump's inexperience. The former real estate developer had never served in government but entered office with a reputation for cutting deals.
But it doesn't appear that the president has adjusted to the art of the congressional deal.
In business, negotiations are often self-contained and driven by making the numbers work. On Capitol Hill, budget talks, health care reform, bills up for debate now and legislation scheduled for later, are interconnected. More than a balance sheet motivates lawmakers; they're driven by deeply held values.
Veteran Republican operatives say that Trump has yet to deal with Congress accordingly. Party insiders fret that they haven't seen signs of strategic coherence in the president's approach to getting his key priorities across the finish line — many of which, like beefing up border security, they support.
The unfocused attempt to win wall money as a part of the spending bill, and then fast capitulation reminded many of Trump's inconsistency on healthcare and tax reform.
"During the campaign, Trump's flurry of shifting statements kept the press and his opponents off-balance," said Michael Steel, who advised John Boehner when the Ohio Republican served as House speaker and later worked for GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush. "But, so far, that tactic hasn't proven nearly as effective when it comes to passing legislation."
Horowitz, a longtime critic of Republican leadership, believing them too timid in budget fights, put a finer point on Trump's latest misstep.
The president, by appearing to value avoiding a government shutdown more than Senate Democrats, violated his own rules as presented in his famous business tome, The Art of the Deal.
"This is The Art of the Deal playing out in real life," Horowitz said. "Trump himself warns in the book: 'The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it. That makes the other guy smell blood, and then you're dead.'"