One year into complete control of Washington, Republicans are still trying to come up with a governing agenda.
President Donald Trump wants 2018 to be the year of infrastructure, White House and Hill sources say. And he’ll pitch GOP congressional leaders on rebuilding the nation’s roads and bridges during a rare Camp David strategy session this weekend. But questions about how to pay for it — and whether Republicans can even find the votes for passage — are already troubling Hill leaders.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan, meanwhile, are at odds over whether to tackle entitlement reform in an election year. The Wisconsin Republican has narrowed his expectations after several GOP leaders on both sides of the Capitol expressed concern about the political optics of cutting the safety net for the elderly or poor when GOP majorities are on the line, according to two sources familiar with high-level discussions. But the speaker plans to pitch a welfare overhaul this weekend nonetheless and is already framing the changes as “poverty reform."
On top of all that, Republicans face tough votes ahead that will require Democratic support, likely resulting in compromises that divide the party and alienate the base. Congress is eyeing a massive bipartisan spending deal to increase funding for the Pentagon and domestic programs and avoid a government shutdown in two weeks. Lawmakers also must soon raise the $20 trillion debt ceiling, a toxic vote for the right. And they’re trying to come up with a solution to shield more than 700,000 young undocumented immigrants from deportation.
“We started America's comeback with this tax reform… Now we want to complete that job: infrastructure, dealing with opioids, making sure the security of America is safe, rebuilding our military,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said on Fox News before heading to Camp David Friday. “Those are the things we're looking at and walking through with the Senate and the House on the agenda for 2018.”
The debate over what to pursue and how to proceed show that even after December’s big tax victory, Republicans are still struggling to fully wield their power in the Trump era. The party is torn between its moderates and conservatives, its Trump-like populists and its fiscal hawks — each with their own priorities. And as the window for legislative accomplishments closes with the midterm campaigns approaching, charting a course at the Camp David powwow couldn’t be more important.
“This administration came into office perhaps not really knowing for sure that they would win the election and was a little bit behind the curve in terms of preparing,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn. “Now, I think they recognize that that sort of coordination is really important in order to get things done.”
Attendees include not only Ryan, McConnell and McCarthy but Republican whips Cornyn (R-Texas) and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), a half-dozen cabinet members, and senior White House staff, including chief of staff John Kelly and legislative director Marc Short.
White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters said Friday that attendees will also be discussing the opioids crisis as well as Trump’s nominations. GOP leaders will be briefed on a number of national security items, with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen all in attendance.
Health care, criminal justice reform and trade are also on the weekend agenda, according to both White House and Hill sources. Republicans, for instance, will debate what — if anything — they should demand from Democrats for propping up Obamacare markets. In order to win moderate Sen. Susan Collins’ (R-Maine) vote for tax reform last month, the White House promised to bolster the markets by codifying health care subsidy payments in the coming weeks.
But a fiercely negative reaction from House Republicans has made the White House and House leaders re-think whether they should green-light subsidy payments without repealing more of Obamacare. GOP leaders are expected to discuss whether to take another crack at axing part of Barack Obama’s signature health legislation — like the employer mandate or the medical device tax — over the weekend.
Don’t count McConnell in just yet. The Kentucky Republican in a press conference before Christmas said it’s time to move on from the repeal effort. McConnell couldn’t get Obamacare repealed last year, and that was before his already-thin majority narrowed further with Democratic Sen. Doug Jones’ shocking victory in blood-red Alabama.
Senate Republicans can only lose one vote before any party-line effort tanks — one reason why many Republicans are not optimistic about getting much done in 2018.
“I think that this Congress, the tax bill, was the ascendant legislative achievement for this Congress. It has to be,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) “It’ll trump just about anything we do.”
Much of the Camp David conversation will center on infrastructure, Trump’s favorite policy du jour. Many Hill Republicans expect infrastructure to play a leading role in Trump’s Jan. 30 State of the Union speech. And Trump’s economic adviser Gary Cohn will present on the matter at Camp David, according to a Trump administration source.
Hill Republicans plan to deliver a healthy dose of reality to these discussions with one major question: how will Republicans pay for it? GOP leaders are already getting an earful from conservatives unhappy with recent spending sprees. Republicans plan to increase the federal budget in the coming weeks and pass a more than $80 billion emergency supplemental for hurricane victims — without offsetting the cost.
House GOP leaders are bracing themselves for some in their party to balk at adding a pricy infrastructure plan to that list.
“They’re already complaining about how much money we spent on the supplemental last year,” said one House Republican source. “If the president comes out and says, ‘2018 is the year of infrastructure!’ then … he gives us air-cover to spend more money.”
The White House will signal that it’s open to pretty much any way to offset the cost that Republican leaders can pass, whether they be new user-fees for cars or other services, a gas tax or tolls. But such proposals may not be politically palatable to Republicans who abhor increasing taxes or levies of any kind.
The White House hopes it can garner support for an infrastructure package by working with Democrats. But the plans floated by the White House, which largely center on private investment and state or local funding rather than direct federal spending, have already been rebuffed by Democrats. And sensing a Democratic takeover of Congress next fall, progressives are unlikely to help the president increase his dismal approval ratings — which are the key to their 2018 campaign success.
The mid-term elections are likely to hover over all the policy conversations at Camp David, with McConnell and McCarthy presenting on the political pros and cons of tackling various legislative priorities. McCarthy will remind leaders that presidents usually lose about 25 seats in their first mid-term election. If that occurs this fall, Democrats will win back the House — raising the specter of impeachment proceedings against Trump.
The increasingly dire political environment for the GOP is one of the reasons senior Republicans have leaned on Ryan to scale back his entitlement reform ambitions. A majority of Ryan’s more conservative conference are eager to cut spending and would surely embrace his ideas. But doing so could put the two dozen House Republicans in Hillary Clinton-carried districts in an even more tenuous position.
Two Republican sources said Ryan has narrowed his entitlement push to welfare programs only, like food stamps and housing for the poor. He’ll likely push for work requirements for adults who do not have disabilities and frame this issue as one that helps — not hurts — the poor by breaking the “cycle of poverty” and helping the unemployed get jobs. Republicans would likely be able to target such programs through powerful budget reconciliation procedures that prevent the use of the filibuster in the Senate.
While Trump and White House officials have signaled a desire to take up the matter, it’s unclear if they will be able to convince a more cautious McConnell to get on board.
Some Hill Republicans are afraid that if they try to take on too much, they’ll spread themselves thin and fail to pass anything of consequence.
It’s a fear that does not appear to plague the White House — at least not one they’ll admit publicly.
Asked earlier this week whether Trump would primarily focus on infrastructure, welfare reform or border security in 2018, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders answered essentially: All of the above.
“Look, the president was elected because of his ambitious agenda and his desire to get a lot of things done,” she told reporters. “We're going to focus on that.”