If you like gridlock and endless bickering, you're going to love the next 12 months in Washington.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (center) in December. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty
Republicans ended 2017 on a high note, passing their big tax bill faster than many observers believed was possible. But that was their only major legislative victory of the year. Staring down the all-too-real prospect of a Democratic sweep in the upcoming elections, the heat is on the GOP to score at least one more major win this year to prove that it can govern. On Tuesday, the White House laid out an ambitious agenda for the year: tackling healthcare, immigration, and welfare reform and delivering on a huge infrastructure plan, all tantalizing priorities that appeal to sizeable elements of the Republican Party. Yet at the moment all signs seem to indicate that Donald Trump and his allies won’t be able to make much progress on any of them. Instead, 2018 will likely be a grinding legislative shit show.
Before Republicans can start any new major legislative pushes, they have to deal with all the vital business they shirked last year to focus on healthcare and taxes. Since September, they have used short-term resolutions to keep the government funded a few weeks at a time rather than tackle a long-term spending bill. They also failed to fully reauthorize the popular Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and a host of other government programs, leaving all of them on tenuous short-term life support. And they never got around to voting on a bill to stabilize the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) individual health insurance marketplaces, something Republican leadership promised to do in exchange for a key tax bill vote from Maine senator Susan Collins.
As the last short-term funding measure is set to expire on January 19, Congress’s first task for the year will be keeping the federal government open. It sounds simple enough, but talks on that front are not going well. For funding bills, Republicans need 60 votes in the Senate, so they need bipartisan buy-in from at least nine Democrats. The Democrats are insisting that any increases in defense spending be matched by increases in non-defense spending. Republican leadership hates this idea. And it doesn’t seem like much compromise is being made between the parties.
Democrats also insist that any funding bill include provisions reinstating protections that Trump lifted in September for Dreamers (undocumented immigrants who came to America as children) and offer them a path to citizenship. Trump and the GOP are willing to deal on the Dreamers, but only if they get increased border security spending and immigration reforms in exchange. But negotiations on what specific trade-offs could be made have been hampered by imprecision from the White House. Trump says he wants an end to “chain migration” and diversity visas as well as funding for his Mexican border wall, but has yet to articulate specific demands, despite the fact his administration has promised those details since mid-December. Leaders from both parties will meet with Trump next week to try to hash out a deal. But most of Trump’s demands will likely be red lines for the Democrats. Some negotiators worry a deal is growing less likely.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has made it clear he wants to put disaster relief and some healthcare measures (e.g. addressing CHIP) in the funding bill as well. But each of those additions would be another skirmish Congress doesn’t have any bandwidth for right now.
“I expect one way or the other a resolution will be found,” said former longtime Senate staffer and senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Coalition William Hoagland. “It might entail the real threat of a short-term government shutdown around January 20.” But no one’s eager to see funding kicked down the road again, and the GOP can’t spare a long shutdown facing midterms.
Still, Congress watcher John Johannes cautioned, this doesn’t mean there’s any incentive to compromise on more than spending. “Democrats want to keep the heat on Republicans,” he said, “and half of the GOP members of the house are in a stranglehold caused by fear of being primaried by the far right.” That’s a recipe for intransigence on all other issues, especially something as high-profile and sensitive as the Dreamers.
As a result, Congress could end up passing a pure funding bill, or at least agreeing on top-line spending numbers and a short-term funding measure to buy time to work out the actual bills, but kick every other can down the road again. After all, most Dreamer protections only expire in early March and temporary funding for CHIP and other programs doesn’t run out until late March. Sure, CHIP is likely already suffering damage in its limbo condition, and some Dreamers have already lost their protected status. But these days Congress doesn’t act until it’s facing an actual major crisis.
Hoagland suspects most of the first quarter of the year will be eaten up by debates on balancing Dreamer protections against Trump’s demands. By the time that’s (hopefully) resolved in March, Congress will be staring down another debt ceiling crisis. So at best, Congress won’t be able to start work in any serious way on a new major legislative push until early April.
Common wisdom holds that the wisest decision at that point would be to focus on infrastructure. Some Democrats have said they would work with the GOP on this, which would provide a rare moment of bipartisanship. And the administration has promised a comprehensive blueprint for legislators to jump off of sometime this month.
Then again, they’ve been promising an infrastructure plan was just around the corner for almost a year. And House Speaker Paul Ryan seems hell bent on turning to welfare reform—meaning welfare cuts—at the first opportunity this year, with tacit approval from the White House, despite Trump’s campaign promises to leave entitlement systems intact. Some analysts believe the deficit-inflating tax bill was in part a ploy by Ryan to force Republicans to back welfare reforms to balance the budget.
That would be a dummy move. Republicans can’t even agree among themselves on how to address welfare, dooming any initiative to a slow death by infighting. Democrats can spin any attempt at reforms as a war on the poor. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it clear he doesn’t want to work with Ryan on this, teeing up mid-year inter-chamber conflicts.
There’s a similar intra-party conflict brewing over healthcare reforms. Some Republican senators are threatening to essentially hold the year’s wider agenda hostage until they can take another crack at repealing the ACA. But thanks to the slimming of the GOP’s Senate majority with the arrival of Democrat Doug Jones, such a push is even less likely to succeed in 2018 than 2017, making it an unattractive energy sink for some in the Republican caucus.
Even infrastructure would be a complicated bit of business. People in both parties agree something needs to be done about America’s ailing bridges, dams, and roads. But the Democrats are not fond of the approaches Trump and the Republicans have floated thus far. And any plan will involve a fair amount of federal spending—something conservatives will be more loathe to support than usual after passing a pricey tax bill. Hoagland currently puts the odds of seeing such a bill pass within 2018 at about 50–50.
It’s also worth remembering that, throughout the year, Congress will periodically be forced to shift its focus from putting out the trash fires of 2017 and addressing its ambitious agenda by the nuts and bolts tasks of governing. To wit, a few programs will need reauthorization this year as well. And the Republican tax bill will slowly reveal flaws that need prompt legislative fixes.
Then there are all the unknowns that could derail Congress. Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election is ongoing and could yield nasty surprises. A natural or foreign policy disaster could suck the air out of DC at any given moment.
And of course, noted Johannes, “the 2018 election is growing in importance, and it overshadows everything else.” Campaigning takes time, and scares legislators away from big votes.
So that’s what America has to look forward to in 2018 in Congress: a tooth-and-nail battle to resolve issues that should have been resolved last year, and not much else. Or, as Johannes put it, 2018 will be “a lot of inaction with a ton of noise.”
Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.