The congressional GOP’s protracted efforts to repeal Obamacare could exact a heavy toll on the rest of Donald Trump’s legislative agenda.
If repeal in the House is successful, action on some of the president’s top legislative priorities is expected to be pushed back to late this year or even next year, when lawmakers will be up for reelection and more reluctant to cast tough votes. The delay also threatens to sap whatever Republican momentum remains from the election, in the midst of what’s often the most prolific stretch of a new presidency.
Tax reform is the most prominent issue expected to be put on the back burner. But lawmakers haven’t even begun discussing Trump’s trillion-dollar infrastructure proposal. And the GOP’s long-held vow to get its appropriations process in order looks like a lost cause.
Trump, not a man known for his patience, is starting to flash frustration at the all-GOP Congress’ sluggish pace. He told Fox News last week that he’s “disappointed” that the legislative process “doesn’t go quicker”; on Sunday, the president said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that congressional procedures, particularly those in the Senate, are “unfair.”
Promises from party leaders to open the Trump presidency with a legislative bonanza — repealing and replacing Obamacare, rewriting the tax code and funding Trump’s border wall all before the August recess — have given way to Republican divisions and Democratic resistance. The biggest piece of legislation so far this year is a five-month spending bill that explicitly refuses to fund Trump’s wall.
Some Republicans are now urging party leaders to abandon the traditionally placid summer calendar in order to get moving on legislation and dozens of Senate confirmations.
“We have nine weeks until the August break. I’ve already started a conversation: I’m not sure that we should leave for the August break,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), a close ally of Trump. “Because I don’t see how we get this all done by” then.
Even in the best-case scenario, the calendar looks daunting.
Even if the House manages to pass its Obamacare repeal bill this week and send it to the Senate, it might take a month or more to overhaul the legislation in the more centrist chamber, according to multiple sources familiar with the process. That would almost surely delay consideration of a new budget, complicating efforts by Republicans to get the congressional spending process on track and avoid another round of shutdown brinkmanship in September.
There’s also this problem: Because of the Senate’s procedural constraints, Republicans need to dispense with health care before they move on to a new budget and tax reform. That means the timeline for the GOP’s top two priorities is sure to stretch far beyond what party leaders and Trump had in mind, unless Republicans admit defeat on health care and simply move on to taxes.
The already-forbidding politics of passing tax reform will become only more treacherous if the issue gets pushed into an election year. Democrats are already accusing Republicans of trying to slash health care for the poor while cutting taxes for the rich.
“I want to see us pick up the pace,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.). “I do think the Senate is not always the model of efficiency, and, in part, because the Founding Fathers designed it that way. But we can do better, and I think we need to.”
Back in January, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sketched out a 200-day plan that took into account the Senate’s slow pace and byzantine rules: By the end of April, Obamacare would be repealed and the tax code, as well as Trump’s border wall, would be funded by August. That’s looking less realistic with each passing day.
Technically, Republicans are still on track to pass much of their agenda along party lines using the majority-vote tool of reconciliation. The sequence: Approve a 2017 budget to unlock reconciliation to repeal Obamacare, gut the law, clear a 2018 budget to unlock the same process for tax reform, then rewrite the tax code.
It’s just that Republicans are running way, way behind. The only part they’ve completed so far is the 2017 budget, which was approved just before Trump was sworn in in January.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who will be at the center of Senate efforts to overhaul the tax code and replace Obamacare, said he has “major concerns” that the plodding pace on health care is hurting the timeline for taxes. Added Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 GOP leader: “The major ticket items are going to take a while. This is big consequential stuff. We’re not going to be able to kick it out overnight.”
“I could see this stretching out through 2017 and into the fall,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) of tax and health care reform, insisting even the delayed timeline has the GOP on track.
Republicans in the two chambers are hoping to smooth the way for tax reform by discussing ideas for a potential proposal before the heavy legislative work begins. They want to avoid two dramatically different plans emerging from the House and Senate, which is almost certain to happen on Obamacare repeal if the House repeals the law this month.
In the near term, there’s little for the Senate to do beyond repealing more Obama-era regulations under the Congressional Review Act and processing more of Trump’s nominees. Those include Jay Clayton to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission; his nomination will be on the floor next week. The Senate has just one Cabinet-level official left to consider: Robert Lighthizer, the nominee to become the U.S. trade representative.
McConnell has ordered up bipartisan legislation from his committees that could conceivably pass while Senate Republicans negotiate on Obamacare and tax reform. Assistance for small banks or a wireless broadband bill are among the options in the short term, though no final decision has been made, according to senators and aides.
“There are a number of bills of a bipartisan nature,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who also said he wants to move promptly on an infrastructure bill. “There will be plenty of things to do.”
With so much early focus on confirming Trump’s Cabinet and Supreme Court nominees, Congress has passed little legislation into law.
“The CRAs have been trivial. When you’re not accomplishing anything, you make a bigger deal out of nothing,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
In addition to the high-profile policies they want to enact, Republicans are hoping to finally get the appropriations process in order by passing 12 individual spending bills by the end of September. But first, they must pass a budget document that’s sure to expose deep fault lines in the party among military hawks, fiscal conservatives and moderates over the party’s spending priorities.
At this point, there’s little optimism that Republican-controlled Washington can pass spending bills through committees and then individually on the floor. Doing so could take months of Senate floor time.
A newer generation of Senate Republicans, including Daines and Sen. Mike Rounds , are still eager to find ways to speed up the appropriations process, including getting rid of a procedural vote on the motion to proceed on funding bills. And Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) has revived his legislation that would block lawmakers’ pay if they don’t pass a budget.
“We continue to go through this daily, weekly, monthly, year after year without getting anything accomplished,” Heller said, “without being able to talk about those budgets that determine what’s good for our states.”