Republicans See a Looming Test They May Easily Fail
This summer will be chock-full of bummers for congressional Republicans -- the Russia investigation, the constant questions about President Trump’s behavior, their congressman-elect in Montana facing an assault charge for allegedly body-slamming a reporter, and of course that bad CBO score the reporter was asking about. But the towering peril behind the headlines is their inability to govern.
The “unified Republican government” was supposed to be riding high by now, having passed a repeal of Obamacare, recruiting great candidates to knock 10 Democrats out of Senate seats in states Trump won, and moving on to comprehensive tax reform with the “biggest tax cut ever.”
But Obamacare has become a quagmire for Republicans -- they haven’t found a way to keep a seven-year promise, and signals from the Senate, now tasked with writing a new bill because they can’t stand the House-passed measure, are bleak. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said this week he doesn’t know how he will get to 50 votes to pass a fix in the upper chamber.
Other bills aren’t exactly flying over to the president's desk either. Significant transportation projects, or a sweeping infrastructure package, are considered impossible this year or even next. There were victories in the omnibus spending bill that passed earlier this month, like increased border security and defense spending, a pay raise for troops and increased funds for Alzheimer's and cancer research, but the bill wasn’t treated that way by the president: After its passage, he called for “a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix this mess!” OMB Director Mick Mulvaney lamented the president’s “sense of frustration over how he’s being mistreated by the Democrats on this bipartisan piece of legislation.” Thus far, too many House Republicans seems to agree with the president. One member close to leadership conceded: “They think in terms of only partisan wins.”
There’s some time for a course correction, lawmakers say, but not much. The budget deadlines, along with various hurdles and cliffs in the months ahead, are daunting. And the very next thing they must accomplish will be an even more challenging deal to raise the debt ceiling and change the law that created the “sequester” in 2011, officially known as the Budget Control Act. To break the caps in the BCA, Republicans must get Democrats on board to pass it through the Senate with 60 votes. They want to pass a budget agreement that determines the top line spending number in that same bill -- all by the end of July and the start of the August recess.
At the same time, Republicans will be hoping that the Senate comes up with a health care reform bill that can not only pass the upper chamber but get back through the House as well. This must occur by Sept. 30 when reconciliation instructions -- which permit a partisan vote of just 50 senators -- for health care reform will expire. It’s likely that a continuing resolution for the spending bills will pass at the end of September, lasting until December, as even the passage of mini-buses (larger than appropriations bills but smaller than one large omnibus) will likely be too much to pass by Sept. 30. Assuming this all goes well, which is assuming a lot, the remaining months of October and November would be spent hammering out a 2018 budget deal that could pass the Senate in December, and provide reconciliation instructions for tax reform that would expire Sept. 30, 2018.
So no, tax reform will not get done this year. And meanwhile, Republicans cannot pass anything close to the Trump budget outline released this week. The plan cuts deeply into Medicaid, food stamps, children’s health insurance, disability insurance and other safety net programs, eliminates other programs entirely including the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and assumes strong economic growth resulting from tax cuts that House Freedom Caucus member Mark Sanford dismissed as “Goldilocks” projections. Rep. Harold Rogers, who called the cuts “very harmful,” predicted “it will be very difficult in both bodies to pass a budget proposal.”
Concern is rising among some members that as leadership remains focused on the big gets -- an Obamacare repeal/replace bill and tax reform -- the budget process will go from delay to defeat, which would mean a CR that goes into next year if members can’t agree to a final budget on time. Arguably, it’s hard to see their fractured party coming together later this year or next on these issues when they couldn’t yet do so. “We don’t have the unity to do these kind of things; these guys don’t know how to do things together except in opposition,” one conservative member conceded. Yet, he added darkly, “there’s a mood setting in that we’re not going to be in the majority anyway, and so we should get some things done.”
Even if they accomplish their other goals by the end of the year, agreeing on tax reform seems hard for some members to imagine. Should they produce a deal, Republicans still run the risk that using reconciliation for tax reform, thereby passing a bill with only Republican votes, will doom them to withering attacks. A moderate member said, “We’re just setting ourselves up for the argument that we passed tax cuts for the rich and took away programs for the needy.” He estimated the chances of Republicans passing their budget deal through both chambers to get reconciliation by the end of this year as “pretty remote” anyway. “We don’t have much time, we’re in a hell of a quandary here.”