GOP faces grand old problem

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Republican senators announce retirement, slam US president in a battle for the soul for the Republican party

WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump hit back at critics within his own party on Wednesday, painting them as outliers in what he calls a "love fest" between him and Republican lawmakers.

A day after Republican senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker described Mr Trump as having a "flagrant disregard" for truth and decency and of "debasing" the nation, the US president tweeted that that Mr Flake and Mr Corker were resigning because they had "zero chance of being elected". Both Republican senators have announced that they would not seek re-election next year.

He insisted his meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill a day earlier had been a resounding success.

"The meeting with Republican Senators yesterday, outside of Flake and Corker, was a love fest with standing ovations and great ideas for USA!" he said.

Mr Trump's allies cheered Mr Flake's departure as a victory for their effort to take over the party and a "monumental win for the entire Trump movement".

Still, both senators will remain in Congress for more than a year and will be less likely to fall in line behind the White House on key votes.


Mr Trump had already faced a difficult task of mustering 51 votes to pass tax cuts, an effort that appears to be the glue holding the party together.

There are 52 Republican senators, so more than one defection would hamper reform efforts, unless Democrats can be brought on board.

It is also far from clear that more hardline Republican candidates can beat Democrats in places like in Mr Flake's native Arizona, where Mr Trump campaigned hard in 2016 yet won by less than four percentage points.

Many Republicans see Trump's presidency as the best way to enact long-standing goals like tax reform and cutting the size of government, and the White House has worked hard to keep the rank and file focused on those targets amid rolling scandals and failed attempts to pass legislation.

"Working hard on the biggest tax cut in US history. Great support from so many sides. Big winners will be the middle class, business & JOBS," Mr Trump also tweeted on Wednesday.

"I'll tell you what, honestly, the Republicans are very, very well united," he said.

The White House points to the president's approval ratings among Republican voters as evidence that his brand of politics should dominate the party.

According to an Economist/YouGov Poll, 81 per cent of Republican voters approve of the way Trump is handling his job as president. Mr Trump has an overall approval rating of 36 per cent.

Against that backdrop, many Republicans privately express grave misgivings about Trump's behaviour in office, but remain publicly supportive.

"Parties always have their disagreements. Look no further than Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party. That's just part of party politics," Republican senator Steve Daines told AFP.

Political science professor Larry Sabato said Mr Flake's attack on Mr Trump was a "beating" for the president, but is "not going to be a watershed."

Yet there is no doubt that the two senator's comments have exposed a simmering battle for the soul of the Republican party.

Establishment conservatives - who have managed since 2007 to co-opt waves of populist and nationalist party insurgents - have struggled to retain control since Mr Trump's election.

Senator Marco Rubio admitted the party "is going through a moment of realignment internally".

He cited "an internal debate about what the party is going to be about, what it's going to represent in the years to come". - REUTERS

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