After a two-weeks of being berated by their constituents at raucous town halls—and watching Democrats come close to flipping two solidly red districts in Kansas and Georgia—members of Congress return to DC Monday. With few legislative accomplishments under their belts so far, they now face a government funding deadline, a debt ceiling increase, demands from the White House to take another swing at repealing Obamacare, and the daunting, likely impossible task of overhauling the tax code by August.
Though Republicans control both chambers of Congress and the White House, deep divisions on all these issues remain, exacerbated by weeks of finger-pointing and inter-party threats in the wake of the health care bill’s embarrassing demise. And the closer it gets to the 2018 midterm elections, the more cautious members in swing districts will become about sticking their neck out to vote for controversial or unpopular bills.
“They have a lot to accomplish, but it’s a big question mark whether they’ll be able to do it,” said Dan Scandling, who worked as a senior staffer for GOP lawmakers for nearly 25 years. “At some point the Republicans have to start delivering, or their base will start showing up at their town halls saying, ‘Hey, you for years said if we gave you a Republican House and Senate you’d get things done. What’s the holdup?'”
Because members face enormous pressure to at least appear that they are making progress on the people’s business, we can expect to see a great deal of stalling, finger-pointing, earnest press conferences, bouts of secret negotiations, and other forms of political theater in the months ahead. For Republicans, the show must go on.
Government shutdown posturing
The government’s funding will expire at midnight on April 28, giving Congress less than a week to pass either a temporary or long-term budget in order to keep the lights on.
Under President Obama, each government funding and debt ceiling deadline offered Republicans a fresh opportunity to engage in brinksmanship and win concessions on red-meat issues like private school vouchers and abortion. This practice peaked in 2013, when Republicans triggered a two-week government shutdown over the implementation of Affordable Care Act.
This time around, despite breathless news reports that some members of both parties and the Trump administration are gunning for a shutdown showdown, Republican leaders acknowledge they have zero incentive to shutter a government under their own unified control. To do so would be a self-own for the ages.
“With a Republican House, Republican Senate and Republican administration, we don’t want to stumble into a shutdown,” warned Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee currently drafting the budget.
House Speaker Paul Ryan hammered this point in a conference call with Republicans on Saturday, telling them his top priority was passing a budget to keep the government open.
And with several Republicans publicly declaring they won’t vote for any short-term budget—out of concern it will hurt the military’s ability to plan ahead—GOP leaders know they will need Democratic votes in order to get anything to the president’s desk. This leverage has allowed Democrats to lay down several red lines.
“Our position has been crystal clear,” Matthew Dennis, an aide for the House Appropriations Committee’s top Democrat Nita Lowey (D-NY), told TPM. “There are several poison pill riders that the President wants, and they are articulating those priorities to Republicans in Congress. But we will not provide any money to fund the border wall. We won’t agree to defunding Planned Parenthood or Sanctuary Cities, or underfunding any critical domestic programs.”
Democrats are also demanding the budget include guaranteed funding for Obamacare’s subsidies to insurers covering high-risk patients.
Dennis said negotiations “in good faith” took place over the congressional recess between Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate. But the White House threw a wrench into the process over the weekend by insisting that the budget include billions in funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and for hiring more Border Patrol and ICE officers.
“We want wall funding. We want [immigration] agents. Those are our priorities,” OMB Director Mick Mulvaney told the Associated Press. President Trump’s year-long campaign promise that Mexico will pay for the wall—which even top Republicans dismissed as a fantasy—has turned into vague assurances of eventual reimbursement.
Eventually, but at a later date so we can get started early, Mexico will be paying, in some form, for the badly needed border wall.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 23, 2017
Trump is also demanding the budget include upwards of $30 billion more for the military and the ability to strip federal funding from sanctuary cities.
Despite this White House bluster, Republicans in Congress do not seem eager to push for these demands if doing so would risk a shutdown on their watch. As Rep. Davis (R-IL) told CNN on Friday when asked about the border wall funding: “I don’t think there’s any appetite for a shutdown.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who has previously vowed to block any new funding for what he calls a “pointless wall,” boasted last week that negotiations over recess were “so far, so good” for Democrats.
If Congress can’t come to an agreement in the next four days, however, Dennis predicted they may pass a “one-week patch to buy more time.”
Scandling agreed that a fair amount of stalling is the most likely outcome. “It sounds like they may kick the can down the road,” he told TPM.
Groundhog Day for health care
After the first version of GOP health care bill died a humiliating death in March—pulled from the floor minutes before a vote that would have defeated the legislation—top Republicans vowed to stop setting “arbitrary deadlines” and to be more transparent the next time around.
“One of the lessons we learned from this process is to let it be slow and deliberate and give everyone a chance to try to bring their ideas to the table,” Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee told reporters before recess.
But under pressure from a White House desperate for a tangible victory within the largely meaningless “first 100 days” window, the GOP is gearing up for another rushed vote on a revised bill drafted behind closed doors over the recess.
Though no legislative text has been unveiled and no whip count taken to gauge support, some members made noises last week about a brand new amendment they say can bring the House GOP’s warring factions together and get the struggling health care bill across the finish line.
This latest act in the GOP’s Kabuki health care drama has played out much like the previous amendments and deals they have rolled out—which similarly have done nothing to bridge the fundamental ideological divide between lawmakers who believe the government has no business at all in the health care sector and those who believe the government has a responsibility to care for the sick and the vulnerable.
The question nagging Republicans, Scandling says, is: “For every Freedom Caucus vote they get, how many moderates do they lose?”
Almost immediately after the latest deal was announced, a proposal to allow states to easily opt of Obamacare’s cost protections for people with pre-existing conditions, lawmakers were tamping down expectations—telling TPM that it is not clear the measure could garner the 216 votes necessary to pass the House. Others say even the prospects of a vote on the bill this week are dim.
Republicans in Congress are skeptical about the White House pushing AHCA next week. From a GOP aide close to health care negotiations: pic.twitter.com/ig2RkhNfX1
— Haley Byrd (@byrdinator) April 21, 2017
Still, despite the high likelihood of another embarrassing collapse, the Trump administration is calling for a vote as soon as Wednesday.
“They have to show they’re trying to move the ball forward,” Scandling said. “It’s kind of like a Hail Mary pass in my opinion, but it’s important to the Speaker and President to get a win on the board.”
The drawn out song-and-dance around health care, the budget, the border wall, and sanctuary cities may be a mere opening act to President Trump and Capitol Hill Republicans plans to tackle an overhaul of the U.S. tax code.
For decades, the raison d’etre for the GOP has been cutting taxes, and the Trump administration came into office promising to deliver on this by Congress’ August recess. But after watching a Hill Republicans’ seven-years-long battle cry to repeal Obamacare collapse in a just a few weeks, hopes for meeting the August deadline have faded.
“Tax relief by August is never happening,” Scandling said. “Everyone in Washington knows it’s an unrealistic deadline.”
Again, as with health care, Republicans have not yet addressed some basic hurdles. For one, will Republicans who have for years decried the ballooning federal deficit support the deep tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations that would add an estimated $6.2 trillion dollars to that deficit?
“If you don’t have a savings, it can’t move forward,” Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) told TPM before leaving DC for recess. “In a conference that doesn’t like deficits, you have to have a pay-for. If all you do is cut taxes, there’s the question of the pay-for and our $20 trillion in debt.”
Without a revenue generator, Republicans may only be able to propose a very modest tax cut, though this will do little to inspire lawmakers desperate for a tangible victory to show their constituents ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
“If you only cut the corporate tax rate from 35 to 34 [percent], what have you really accomplished?” Collins said. “We’re looking for dramatic cuts.”
Additionally, any plan that increases the deficit over the next decade can’t pass the Senate with a simple majority vote under the rules of reconciliation, meaning Republicans would need to win over Democratic votes in an atmosphere where fired-up Democrats are in no mood to bail out their colleagues and help President Trump.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin provided a laughable answer to this conundrum last week, assuring lawmakers and the public that the plan to slash corporate taxes will “pay for itself with growth” and generate at least $2 trillion dollars—a promise even conservative economists characterize as fuzzy math and wishful thinking.
What options are left? The one concrete proposal on the table to raise revenue, a border adjustment tax (BAT), has come under fire from those fearing constituent anger over higher prices at grocery stores, Walmarts, and gas stations.
“It’s completely dead in the water in the Senate,” said Scandling bluntly.
And the one proposal aimed at reducing the tax of middle class working Americans, the elimination of the payroll tax, is already drawing the ire of the AARP and other advocacy groups who note that this would imperil the Social Security trust fund.
Congressional and budget experts tell TPM to expect either a modest or temporary tax cut from Congress this year—though not by August—or nothing at all.
“I never thought they’d get tax reform done this year,” said Bill Hoagland, who worked for decades for the Senate Budget Committee. “The only possible solution is something very simple.”