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The Battles the Republican Congress Will Have Against Itself, and Trump, in 2017

Republicans control both parts of Congress and the White House, but that doesn't mean their time in power will be easy.

by Harry Cheadle
08 December 2016, 12:00am

Donald Trump and Paul Ryan reenacting the final scene of 'The Graduate' shortly after Election Day. Photo by Nicholas KammAFP/Getty Images

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

When Donald Trump and the 115th Congress come into office in January, it will be the first time in eight years that a single party controls the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. The US system is designed, basically, to stop things from getting done. Bills have to work their way through both legislative houses and get signed by the president to become law, and in practice, many need 60 votes in the Senate thanks to filibuster rules. So the period from the start of 2017 to the 2018 midterms represents a rare chance for the GOP to do whatever it wants, at least in theory.

Washington, DC, is where theory goes to die by the hand of practice, however. As Barack Obama and the 111th Congress learned in 2009, congressional majorities plus the White House don't add up to a license to remake America, and when a single party controls the capital, divisions inside that party can become more apparent.

According to a 2009 report from the Congressional Research Service, the Democrats controlled 58 Senate seats (plus two independents who caucused with the Democrats), to the Republicans' 40; the House was controlled by Democrats by a margin of 263–178. Yet the party's big-ticket piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, was a nightmare of compromises that emerged only after long months of vitriolic debate. That was mostly thanks to the conservative Blue Dog Democrats, a suddenly powerful swing bloc of legislators who pushed for the final plan to be less expensive and less comprehensive. (Not that their stance helped them win votes: Most of the Blue Dogs lost to Republicans in subsequent elections.)

There is no corresponding faction of liberal Republicans (lol) in the incoming Congress. But there are disagreements in the party that will become more prominent in the coming year, just as happened for the Democrats in 2009.

Republicans have a smaller edge in the 115th Congress than Democrats had in the 111th. There will be 52 or 51 GOP senators in office come January (depending on the results of a runoff vote in Louisiana) and 240 Republicans in the House. That's enough to pursue some major legislative priorities, including passing a big tax cut and reforming healthcare reform. But the road map to getting there is far from clear.

Let's start with the filibuster in the Senate. Before the election, there was talk of the Republicans wiping out the F-word in order to more easily push their agenda through. But a sizeable chunk of Republican senators don't want to do that for a host of reasons, including the fact that they'll likely be back in the minority sometime in the future and will want to make use of the filibuster then. That technical piece of business will matter a lot, since Senate Democrats seem determined to block efforts to repeal Obamacare. You can imagine the debate among pro- and anti-filibuster factions among Republican senators turning into a vicious side battle in what promises to be a long argument over healthcare.

And it will be a long argument. Though all Republicans want to "repeal and replace" Obamacare, doing so is gonna be more complicated than those three little words imply. Just wiping out the Affordable Care Act could be done, but it would lead to millions losing health insurance—so there needs to be a replacement on deck. But which replacement plan would pass? And how would it get passed?

The latest Republican scheme, detailed in the New York Times, is to immediately repeal Obamacare—which could be done with a mere majority in the Senate—but schedule the repeal to kick in a few years down the road, giving Congress time to craft a replacement. That replacement, though, would require some Democratic votes in the Senate thanks to the pesky filibuster, and how those votes would come about is anyone's guess. Meanwhile, as experts explained to the Times, the imminent repeal and uncertain future would probably lead to insurance companies pulling out of the Obamacare exchanges even more than they already have. If Democrats remained unified—as Republicans did during the first Obamacare fight—they could simply stand back and ask why conservatives were allowing millions of people to lose their insurance.

Healthcare is a thorny, complicated issue, but there are other fronts on which the GOP would be divided thanks to differences in opinion between Trump and his party. Most notably, there's the issue of tariffs—taxes on imports intended to protect domestic manufacturing—which Trump loves and congressional Republicans hate. Either Trump will have to back down, or his nominal allies in Congress will.

There are smaller questions that might further complicate unified Republican rule. Democrats are currently zeroing in on a provision in an infrastructure bill requiring American-made steel be used in projects, which Republicans have opposed but Trump would support if he intends to follow through on his promise to "put new American metal into the spine of this nation." Is that going to be a whole thing? Will Trump persuade Republicans to change their tune and support infrastructure spending? Were his repeated promises to "build that wall" really about border security in general, as congressional Republicans now claim? Or could a Trump administration start construction on a wall without Congress's approval, as Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani suggested just after the election? Is Trump going to follow up on that whole "term limits for Congress" thing? Similarly, is that call for more congressional power—put forth by Trump ally Congressman Tom Cotton, among others—just empty posturing, or will there be actual attempts to rein Trump in?

Trump is going to have a lot of power through the executive branch alone, and a Republican Congress will make it easier for him to enact far-reaching, expansive changes to American life. But these early signs of congressional disagreement prove that it won't be easy. Trump promised to drain the swamp, but he's going to spend a good portion of his time wading through the muck.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.

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