Republicans in Congress are demonstrating an increasing willingness to defy Donald Trump, in a sign of the uphill battle the US president faces as he remakes his White House and tries to get a stalled legislative agenda back on track.
Despite Mr Trump's weekend warning that Senate Republicans would look like "total quitters" if they abandoned their efforts to dismantle healthcare reforms passed under his predecessor, Barack Obama, Senate leaders on Tuesday instead turned their attention to the backlog of Trump nominees for senior administration roles.
"Until somebody shows us a way to get that elusive 50th vote, I think it's over," said senator John Thune of South Dakota, a member of the Republican leadership team, referring to the threshold the party failed to reach on a healthcare Bill last week. "Maybe lightning will strike and something will come together but I'm not holding my breath."
The defiance came alongside more signs that Republicans are growing less fearful of the president after a chaotic first six months in office. Jeff Flake, a Republican senator from Arizona, berated his fellow members of Congress for an "unnerving silence in the face of an erratic executive branch".
The shift points to the difficult task facing retired general John Kelly, Mr Trump's new chief of staff, as he seeks to bring discipline to a factionalised White House, improve relations with Congress and contend with a president prone to social media outbursts.
Mr Trump on Tuesday signalled that he saw little need to change his style. “Only the Fake News Media and Trump enemies want me to stop using Social Media (110 million people). Only way for me to get the truth out!” he said on Twitter, after hailing new highs in US stock markets.
But the president also faced new allegations linked to an inquiry into Russian interference in last year's election after the Washington Post reported he had personally intervened to draft a misleading initial statement by his son, Donald Trump Jr, about a meeting with a Russian lawyer.
Much of the discussion in Washington on Tuesday was focused on a scathing column by Mr Flake, a prominent Republican running for re-election next year.
A “Faustian bargain” had led to a damaging silence by the party’s leaders as longstanding US institutions – and conservative values – came under assault from the president, the senator wrote.
“If this was our Faustian bargain, then it was not worth it,” he said.
“Under our constitution, there simply are not that many people who are in a position to do something about an executive branch in chaos,” Mr Flake said. “The Congress was designed expressly to assert itself at just such moments . . . And so, that unnerving silence in the face of an erratic executive branch is an abdication, and those in positions of leadership bear particular responsibility.”
Mr Flake's call to action drew support from other Republicans who pointed to Congress' bipartisan push for tougher sanctions on Russia as an example of their willingness to defy to president when necessary.
"We should stand up where we think it's appropriate," Leonard Lance, a Republican congressman from New Jersey, told CNN. "We are an independent and separate branch of government and we have constitutional responsibilities as well."
Mr Lance said, however, that he also had great hopes for Mr Kelly’s ability to bring order to the White House and inject new energy into Mr Trump’s agenda.
The collapse of healthcare reform efforts last week marked the end of six fruitless months of debate within the party and left a gaping hole where Mr Trump had hoped to fulfil a key campaign pledge with his first major legislative win.
Senator Roy Blunt, another Republican leader, said: "I think it's time to move on to something else. Come back to healthcare when we've had more time to get beyond the moment we're in and see if we can't put some wins on the board."
In the wake of last week’s healthcare defeat, senior administration officials and congressional Republicans have begun talking up the importance of tax reform as a means of energising the economy and scoring a legislative victory before the 2018 midterm elections.
Reforming the tax system, some believe, could be easier for Republicans to sell politically than unpopular healthcare reforms that would have led to millions losing their coverage.
– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017)