GOP Congress Begins Crafting Agenda for President Trump

GOP Congress Begins Crafting Agenda for President Trump
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Congressional Republicans, still reveling in their sweeping electoral victories Tuesday night, began plotting their course of action next year with unified control of Washington.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell both praised Trump for his victory Tuesday night -- Ryan called it the “the most incredible political feat I have seen in my lifetime,” and McConnell said it was a “stunning election.” Each leader spoke with Trump Wednesday and began preparations for having a Republican back in the White House.

High atop their lists -- and one of Trump’s main refrains on the campaign trail -- was the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act. Neither leader would detail the process with which they would dismantle President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, but both made it clear they consider that a top early priority. McConnell talked about his hope to see conservative Supreme Court justices nominated to the bench; Ryan talked about the policy agenda he crafted with House Republicans, which he hopes to pass and have Trump sign into law. 

Both leaders have had difficult relationships with the president-elect in recent months. Ryan pledged he would no longer defend Trump after the release of the “Access Hollywood” recording in which he boasted about making uninvited sexual advances toward women, and McConnell essentially disappeared from the public eye near the end of the campaign, declining to speak out publicly either for or against Trump. 

But much of that frostiness was gone Wednesday in the wake the party’s overwhelming victories.

“It’s amazing how winning brings everybody together,” said New York Rep. Chris Collins, a top supporter of Trump on Capitol Hill. Collins said there is no lingering frustration with leadership’s handling of Trump’s candidacy, and that members of the president-elect’s team have been reaching out to Republicans who didn’t support the nominee to assure them there will be no repercussions or ill will.

Ryan is expected to win back his speakership next week, and McConnell is poised to stay majority leader, meaning there will be little change in top GOP ranks when Trump takes office. But despite the unity on display Wednesday, big questions face Republicans in the coming weeks and months.

First is the question of exactly how hard, and how fast, to push their advantage once in control of both the executive and legislative branches. Ryan said Trump “earned a mandate” for his agenda and that it shouldn’t go to waste. He brought up lessons he learned from GOP control of the presidency and Congress during the early years of the George W. Bush administration.

“I think the mistakes that we made in the past is we didn't seize the opportunity when it presented itself,” the speaker said. “The opportunity is now here. And the opportunity is to go big, to go bold, and to get things done for the people of this country.”

McConnell, however, voiced a much more reserved approach. He cautioned that it was a mistake to “misread your mandate” and said the GOP holds a “temporary lease on power.”

“We are going to be looking for bipartisan support, and I think overreaching after an election is, generally speaking, a mistake,” the Senate leader said.

Most Democrats rejected the notion that Trump would enter the White House with a mandate. Clinton won the popular vote, the second time in five elections a Democrat has won more votes overall but lost the White House. Many Democrats, from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and progressive hero Sen. Elizabeth Warren, promised they would be able to work with Trump once he takes office. Both Schumer and Pelosi spoke with the president-elect by phone Wednesday.

“It is time for the country to come together and heal the bitter wounds from the campaign,” Schumer said in a statement. “Senate Democrats will spend the coming days and weeks reflecting on these results, hearing from the American people, and charting a path forward to achieve our shared goals and to defend our values.”

Pelosi offered points of agreement in her statement, saying she could work with the GOP on infrastructure, an issue that has bipartisan support. Her move indicated the Democrats won’t act as obstructionists, at least early on, to the GOP.

Still, while other Democrats echoed the sentiments of Schumer and Pelosi, some promised to be ready to check Trump’s power.

“I stand ready to work cooperatively with President-elect Trump on shared goals and values and will be equally vigilant in opposing him where our values diverge,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

The reality is Democrats will be powerless to stop at least some of Republicans’ top goals. Regarding the repeal and replacement of Obamacare, for example, most expect Republican lawmakers to use the process of budget reconciliation, which would allow them to bypass a filibuster and pass repeal through the Senate with just 51 votes. McConnell and Ryan wouldn’t address whether they are sure to use reconciliation, but it’s likely their only way to repeal the law. 

But some Republicans, now faced with the reality of being able to dismantle the law they’ve decried for more than six years, advised caution. Collins, the Trump ally who serves on a key health subcommittee in the House, said that with thousands of Americans signing up this year on the exchanges, plus the expansion of Medicaid in many states, the process would be complex and lengthy. Ryan’s policy proposal laid out a health care agenda, but crafting it into specific legislative language that can pass both chambers will take time.

“You can’t just do this on a Tuesday night and have it in place Wednesday morning,” Collins said. “Repealing is easy. Replacing is not so easy. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

There is also the question of where congressional Republicans’ agenda will divert from Trump’s. McConnell declined to address immigration issues Wednesday and wouldn’t discuss Trump’s call to build a wall on the Mexican border, a cornerstone of his presidential campaign; the GOP leader would only say that “border security is something I think ought to be high on the list.” He also laid down a stark divide with Trump by opposing term limits on members of Congress despite Trump’s calls to “drain the swamp.”

“I think most of the things that he’s likely to advocate we’re going to be enthusiastically for,” McConnell said. “Where we have differences of opinion, I expect to discuss them privately and not start hashing them out in public. But the goal will be to try to get on the same page to try and turn the country in a different direction."

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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