Congressional Republicans Want to Put Stamp on 2016
BALTIMORE – Paul Ryan has been explicit about his goal since taking over as House speaker: he wants to lay out a bold agenda of conservative policies in order to shape the presidential election. At a joint conference here this week, House and Senate Republicans coalesced around that goal and began to plan their agenda.
Republicans hope to come up with major proposals to replace the Affordable Care Act – which they’ve been working on for more than five years – as well as welfare reform, tax reform, and other major conservative policies. They don’t have any delusions that President Obama will sign their plans into law, but they aim to accomplish two things: one, set a clear marker between Republican and Democratic priorities heading into the November election, and two, give Republicans momentum (and ready-to-go legislation) if the election goes their way and they control the White House in 2017.
“The kind of agenda we’re talking about forming is what could we do if we had a Republican president,” Ryan told reporters in a briefing Thursday afternoon. “What does 2017 look like if the election goes the way we hope it goes? That is why we think it is important for us to offer a positive, solutions-oriented approach and agenda to the American people so that they … can choose in 2016 what kind of country they want to have."
This week’s retreat in Baltimore – dubbed an “ideas conference” and started the day after Obama laid out his own vision for the country in his final State of the Union address – sets the stage for this Republican plan of action. The majority of congressional Republicans are here for two or three days to hear from three groups: pollsters, talking about key issues in 2016; influential conservatives on the economy, health care, national security, government reform and other critical policy areas; and their own leaders, Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
While Ryan has laid out his vision for the party, McConnell has taken a more low-key approach in articulating his goals for 2016. The rules and procedures in the Senate make it notoriously difficult to quickly move major legislation, and the minority party has great power to grind things to a halt. That makes the bold agenda planned for the House next to impossible in the upper chamber. McConnell’s focus is less on big ideas than it is on protecting his fragile majority, for one, and passing the individual appropriations bills to fund the government, avoiding a trillion-plus-dollar omnibus measure like the one that passed last month. Even that might prove difficult: none of the 12 appropriations bills made it through the Senate last year, and all 12 haven’t passed both chambers together in more than two decades.
Further causing problems for McConnell is a threat from his counterpart, Minority Leader Harry Reid, to push votes on proposals from Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president, including his controversial call to ban Muslims from entering the United States. McConnell said he’d tried to avoid “turning the Senate into a studio” for the presidential campaign, but added, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” He also said Republicans would respond by forcing votes on amendments related to proposals from Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders that could put Democrats in difficult positions.
While tough messaging votes may come to dominate certain weeks this year, there are a few areas where bipartisan deal making remains possible. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said mental health legislation and criminal justice reform are two areas where he expected not only bipartisan support in Congress, but help from the White House. He said he went to a meeting with Obama at the White House several weeks ago to discuss criminal justice reform, and Obama told lawmakers: “I’ll be out front on this or I will sit in the background, whatever you think best enhances the chance of getting something done.”
Beyond those narrow goals, though, there isn’t much hope for sweeping legislation to actually become law. Instead, the goal is for sweeping proposed legislation that will outline the party platform and animate voters. Another calculation for GOP lawmakers on that front is shielding themselves from the heated and often very negative rhetoric of the presidential primary.
There’s been concern within the party in recent weeks over whether certain candidates – notably Trump or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz – would damage lawmakers’ down-ballot campaigns. South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking Republican in the upper chamber, said it was “just inevitable” that the primary rhetoric would be heated, and while lawmakers can’t control the presidential race, they can put themselves in a more positive light.
“What we want to do is articulate a clear, positive vision, (an) agenda for the future of this country and the presidential campaign,” Thune said. “At some point, when we have our nominee, hopefully we’ll be able to sync up with them and their agenda. But we want to make sure that our members have something they can be talking about when they go out to try to convince voters to give them another opportunity to represent them."