GOP Looks for Clarity, Unity at Philadelphia Retreat

GOP Looks for Clarity, Unity at Philadelphia Retreat
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Republican lawmakers are departing Washington for the nation’s original capital Wednesday, hoping three days of closed-door strategizing in Philadelphia can bring Congress and the White House together on key priorities in the early days of the Trump administration.

While the top agenda items are clear – repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, reforming the tax code, scaling back regulations put in place by the Obama administration – the details of those policies and a strategy for implementing a heavy legislative agenda remain unsettled.

Lawmakers hope this week’s sessions, led by House and Senate leadership, committee chairmen steeped in policy details, and the president and vice president, will elicit a clear picture of the Republican game plan.

The details to be worked out are many, and range from big picture to minutiae. The most glaring example remains the repeal and replacement of Obamacare, the top campaign promise of both Trump and most congressional Republicans. While some individual lawmakers have crafted plans – and Speaker Paul Ryan produced the outline for replacement last year – the party has yet to coalesce around a specific solution. There are also unanswered questions about the repeal itself: how much of the law can actually be undone using a complicated budget procedure; the time frame for implementing repeal; and whether or not to keep in place the taxes created by the law during that time.

Lawmakers are also hoping that Trump’s and Vice President Mike Pence’s presentations at the conference will give a clearer picture of the executive action they plan to take, and how it can work in concert with legislative efforts to scale back the health-care law. There was some confusion about the effect of Trump’s first executive order on the law, issued on Inauguration Day, and the steps he plans to take going forward.

Beyond Obamacare, there will be conversations about which Obama regulations Trump can undo, and which ones lawmakers will cut with the little-used Congressional Review Act starting later this month, as well as early discussions on their plans to reform the tax code through the budget process. And lawmakers will have to hash out strategies for other issues such as the appropriations process, raising the debt ceiling and the 2018 budget, all of which could sidetrack their major policy agenda.

“This is really kind of the first step in terms of where we all get together and start discussing these things,” said Sen. Ron Johnson. “How could we [already be on the same page]? We haven’t met yet, so we’re going to first meet. That’s why you have the meeting, to get people on the same page."

The retreat also presents the first opportunity for the Republican conference to hear directly from the new administration. Though Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have been in near constant communication with Trump and his team, rank-and-file members have had minimal interaction with the president since the election – Trump spent the majority of the transition in New York City, though he did speak with some lawmakers by phone or by inviting them to Trump Tower.

The party also will have to grapple with some major policy gaps between the president and Congress. The questions posed to Cabinet nominees during confirmation hearings have exposed serious rifts between Trump’s campaign rhetoric and the positions of many Republican members of Congress on Russia’s action during the election and the imposition of sanctions, the U.S. commitment to NATO, his promises not to reform entitlements and other issues.

Some of those rifts were exposed earlier this week when Trump followed through on his campaign promise to remove the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and could become significant drivers – or obstacles – over the next four years, depending on how the gaps are addressed. The retreat represents the first opportunity for all elected Republicans in Washington to hash out those differences in the same place.

Beyond the agenda-setting, another priority for Republicans will be to get their messaging in order. Trump’s call for “insurance for all” earlier this month threw a wrench in GOP rhetoric on Obamacare, and lawmakers have begun explaining it by saying they want “access” to insurance for all.  And Trump’s desire to repeal and replace Obamacare at the same time forced Republicans to rethink the strategy already taking shape on how to attack the law. Ensuring the messages from the White House and Congress don’t contradict or expose each other’s vulnerabilities will be critical for the party given that Democrats are eager to spotlight divides between Trump and other Republicans.

“What he’s for, or not for, will be critically important to what we do. Because at the end of the day we have to be in the same line with the Senate and the president,” said Rep. Pat Tiberi, the chairman of a key health-care subcommittee. “If he’s not for something, it won’t become law. So it’s really important for us and him to be on the same page."

Ryan, for his part, has insisted that he and Trump have consistently been aligned on key legislative goals, and they have been in communication often, including a private meeting at the White House Monday evening. But Trump, who has no experience governing and campaigned on upending Washington, will have to grapple with the sometimes-glacial pace of Congress. Lawmakers are hopeful that rather than tweet out his displeasure at the process, Trump’s team and the congressional leadership are able to keep him on board even if the legislating goes a bit awry.

“I think we all just need to remind ourselves that no timeline or battle plan that you put together before the first whiff of artillery is fired is going to be perfect,” said Rep. Steve Stivers. “We have to all learn to understand that sequencing is important, but the exact timeline may slip a little.”

That concern counts not just for Trump, but for some House Republicans as well. In the past two years of the GOP controlling Congress, members of the lower chamber have often complained about the slow-moving Senate, and the filibuster that prevents any legislation from passing without some semblance of bipartisan support. House Republicans have mixed feelings about whether to craft Obamacare replacements and other major legislation with  the Senate in mind, or whether the Senate should bend to the will of the House.

“The Senate rules are not something that drive us,” said Rep. Bill Flores. “The American people told us clearly what they want done and I don’t think the American people appreciate the niceties of the Senate rule package.”

Flores said he hoped the upper chamber changes the filibuster rules in order to approve a House-passed health-care bill if there’s no Democratic support – something few Senate Republicans are likely to back. Otherwise, he hoped that the wrath of Trump’s tweets could persuade some Democrats facing re-election in 2018 to support their replacement plans. Others Republicans, however, said a key question for this week’s conference will be whether expectations in the House can be tempered to allow for what can make it through the Senate.

Rep. Charlie Dent said he is eager for a “thoughtful, sober discussion about what is possible, what is realistic … to hear from the Senate, clearly, about what is achievable and what is not.

“I know there’s some folks over here in the House who sometimes like to pretend that the other body doesn’t exist,” he added, “but it does, and that’s why I think it’s important that we gather with them to get closer to reality."

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

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