A long, long time ago—in January—this was shaping up to be an action-packed congressional schedule. It was the first time Republicans had full control of the White House and Congress since 2006, and a legislative blitz seemed likely. At a GOP retreat that month, party leaders drafted up a 200-day plan that envisioned a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act by April; comprehensive tax reform and funding for Donald Trump's border wall would come before Senate's month-long August recess.
Using the esoteric rules of budget reconciliation, Republicans would link ACA repeal and replacement to the 2017 budget process in the spring, then link tax reform to the 2018 budget process this summer, allowing them to pass major bills with just a simple Senate majority rather than a 60-vote supermajority. By the time fall rolled around, they'd have time to dig into other priorities—maybe the big infrastructure bill Trump had promised during the campaign.
Things did not go so smoothly. After a period of infighting, the House passed an ACA replacement bill, but Senate Republicans are still writing their version, which stands to be very different from the House's. (If and when the Senate passes a bill, differences between the version will then have to be ironed out.) Republicans abandoned funding for Trump's wall in a 2017 budget. The widening scandal over Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey has distracted DC. Republicans haven't yet even decided what tax reform would look like. And Trump's infrastructure plan hasn't materialized.
In other words, not much is getting done. And the rest of the congressional calendar isn't too friendly to the Republican agenda.
Because of the reconciliation process Republicans have tied themselves to, they need to pass the healthcare bill before they sort out the 2018 budget. That theoretically needs to happen by September 30 to avoid a government shutdown. And right now it's not guaranteed that the Senate will even be able to pass its version of that bill before the August deadline. (Georgia Senator David Perdue, a pro-Trump Republican, told Politico he wants the Senate to stay in session in August so they can get it done, but it's not clear how much support that idea has.)
As for tax reform, the White House, the House, and the Senate disagree about basic elements that a bill should include. It's also hard for Republicans to formulate any solid tax plan until they know whether they can eliminate key ACA spending and taxes. As disagreements over healthcare led to delays, Republicans have had to push the timeline back on tax reform, with the administration now aiming to pass a bill by the end of the year.
But it's unclear where they're going to find the time to deal with taxes. Team Trump's Russia-related scandals will likely eat up valuable time this spring and summer with hearings and legislators being forced to respond to whatever fresh turd the president drops on their collective doorstep. Democrats could choose to eat up floor time in ongoing hearings for Trump's nominees to a slew of unfilled executive positions. And on Wednesday, the administration informed Congress, seemingly out of the blue, that the Treasury won't be able to stave off a vote on the US's debt ceiling until the fall through financial wizardry as it had hoped. So that's one more priority they'll probably have to tackle before August—and one more fight between conservatives and moderates.
When Congress comes back after the August recess, they'll immediately have to figure out how to keep the government funded before September ends. Trump might push harder to get his wall funded, complicating negotiations between Democrats and Republicans, with the threat of a government shutdown—which some conservatives will likely be unafraid of—looming in the background. And the time for those debates to play out will be constrained as precious floor time will be consumed by vital votes on a popular child healthcare program, federal flood insurance, and authorization for the Federal Aviation Administration, among other matters.
If the debate over the budget stalls, Congress would have to pass a continuing resolution that would keep the government funded at 2017 levels. That could extend the deadline for healthcare reform via reconciliation. But that would also mean that tax reform remains on the back burner. Congress only has two and a half months in session after that vital September 30 budget vote, so any significant delay could scuttle hopes of passing a major agenda item by the end of the year.
Maybe Trump and the Republicans can turn things around, rapidly passing a healthcare bill in the Senate and coordinating between the party's different power bases to reach some kind of consensus on the issue. The fight over the budget might eat up September, but after that that they could spend the rest of 2017 advancing tax reform and at least indicating what that infrastructure plan would actually look like.
But almost no one thinks that's likely. The administration is not full of legislative masterminds. The president especially continues to be erratic, petty, and politically dim-witted; he's more likely to throw major wrenches in his own agenda than skillfully shepherd it along. Add a president like that to the division among congressional Republicans and you don't exactly have a recipe for success.
This week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dropped hints to the press that Congress might not manage to pass anything but routine items in 2017 that keep the lights on. That would leave them with little in the way of serious accomplishments they could show their base as the 2018 midterms approach. Those elections may seem far away to voters, but Republicans are going to start feeling them soon.
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