Back in May, Congress watchers were noting that the GOP's ambitious legislative agenda was in danger of falling apart for sheer lack of time. The situation, to say the least, has not improved.
With healthcare reform, the lynchpin of the Republican agenda, delayed and facing uncertain future in the Senate, a number of Republican lawmakers are now clearly fretting that they could soon have to face their constituents with no substantive victories under their belts. At least ten Senators are apparently so shaken that late last week, just before they took off for the week-long July 4 recess, they petitioned the Republican leadership to cancel Congress's August recess so they could get some work done. But at this point, even that dire effort likely wouldn't be enough to save their agenda.
High on the unexpected presidential victory of Donald Trump and their control of both chambers of Congress, Republican leaders made bold promises of a 2017 legislative blitz. They planned repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act by April and fund Trump's border wall and pass comprehensive tax reform before August. That would have left them the rest of the year to work on, say, Trump's long-promised infrastructure plan, the details of which still haven't been announced.
They also adopted a plan to use an obscure budget process called reconciliation to tackle healthcare and tax reforms via simple party-line majority votes to avoid negotiating with Democrats. That locked their agenda into a strict timeline, since they need to finish the healthcare bill within the 2017 fiscal year, which ends on September 30. Before that deadline, they would also need to start a new reconciliation process for the 2018 fiscal year to do tax reform. That tax reform would also be predicated on the financial implications of whatever healthcare bill they managed to pass. It was an ambitious interlocking plan, so Republicans made sure to allot themselves the most legislative workdays since Congress's 2010 session.
Trump insists elements of this agenda are ahead of schedule, and House Speaker Paul Ryan crowed last week about this as the most productive Congress since the Reagan era. But those are bald-faced lies—or at best self-serving delusions. Not only is healthcare reform idling, Republicans abandoned funding Trump's wall in their 2017 budget, there is no agreement within the GOP on how to approach tax reform, and work on the 2018 budget has been moving sluggishly by even the most generous standards. Congress also needs to spend time reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration, a popular child healthcare program, and federal flood insurance, alongside other nuts-and-bolts duties after the August recess. They'll need to duke it out over raising the debt ceiling soon, too, siphoning vital days and weeks away from work on their actual priorities.
"Everyone is coming to the realization that Republicans are going to need to sprint to the end of the year," Ken Spain, a former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, told the New York Times on Wednesday. But it'd have to be some kind of sprint to make everything fit. The Senate would need to pass its healthcare bill, then reconcile it with the House and re-pass a new draft in both chambers, all before the August recess.
Then, after the recess, they have to crank out a 2018 budget while juggling all of those other necessary votes. They have just 33 working days left to tackle all of that before the end of the 2017 fiscal year. Only after that is taken care of could they start to hack seriously at taxes. Trump's team insist they'll have a tax plan out within the summer, but without a clear grasp on the 2018 budget or the implications of healthcare reform, it'd be moot. And there's no time for it.
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"It is plausible," that Republicans could make this work, said congress watcher Scott Meinke. "But the challenges within each chamber are significant." So in practical terms, it's unlikely. As of Thursday, reports indicated the Senate won't vote on its healthcare bill until the second-to-last week of July, if then. Who knows how long reconciling their bill with the House would take after that?
And although GOP legislators want to avoid tackling the debt ceiling until October, just before the Treasury runs out of tricks to stave off a credit default, the White House is urging them to tackle that issue ASAP. The GOP has no clear strategy for dealing with that vote, and there's likely to be a huge intra-party fight about whether to bundle it with deficit-cutting amendments. Ryan is confident his House can deliver a budget resolution in a timely manner, but plans to do so by July 5 have been scuttled by revolts from within the GOP over the shape of cuts to social safety net programs, among other issues—and any House budget proposal will face an uphill battle in the Senate similar to healthcare. Then there's the wildcard that is Trump, whose scandals and impulsivity can unexpectedly eat up huge gobs of Congress's time.
"Republicans on the Hill know they have missed the boat on several initiatives," healthcare chief amongst them, said congress watcher John Johannes. "A few are in a mild state of panic." That's likely why we've seen this growing push to cut the August recess, something Congress is usually loathe to do short of a national emergency.
Although Republican leadership have not shown much enthusiasm for chopping into the recess, former longtime Senate staffer Steve Bell thinks they might chop off about two weeks to allay some of this anxiety. "Republicans would like to get this darn thing done one way or another so for the rest of the August recess they don't have to get beat up by constituents," said Bell.
But months of maneuvering in the House and Senate have so far failed to find a happy middle ground between conservatives and moderates, and there are no signs a few more days would magically resolve that. As such Bell thinks any attempt to carve more time out of the August recess wouldn't be about finding a solution, but protective posturing in case of eventual failure. Canceling a few weeks of off time would show voters Republicans tried their hardest without sacrificing the whole break. With that theatre out of the way, leadership could officially declare the current healthcare reform push dead after August and begin work on other priorities, like creating a budget and moving on tax reform, while starting a bipartisan process to repair the Affordable Care Act.
McConnell seems to be open to that compromise eventuality. And "the president would like to have some victories chalked up to his side" other than minor legislation and regulation slashing, added Bell, who believes that after that push Trump would champion this agenda reorientation.
That's an optimistic vision, as Bell is the first to admit. The Republican agenda could well crash and burn in a more pyrrhic fashion. But one way or another, whether they take the giant step of cutting short the August recess or not, it's almost certain to crash and burn.
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