Right warns GOP agenda can’t stop at Trump’s tax law

Right warns GOP agenda can’t stop at Trump’s tax law
© Greg Nash

Top conservatives have a message for GOP leadership: Tax cuts alone won’t stave off a Democratic wave in November.

While they have disagreements about what should come next on the 2018 agenda, conservatives say Republicans need to keep their foot on the gas pedal. That means continuing to push “bold” new legislation — on things like infrastructure, criminal-justice reform and pharmaceutical reform — while also selling their historic tax overhaul that Trump signed into law in December.

The warnings from conservatives come as a new CNN poll found that 54 percent of registered voters said they would back a Democrat in their congressional district this year, while 38 percent said they would support a Republican. The new figures mark a shift toward Democrats; in January, Democrats led Republicans on the generic ballot by just 5 points, 49 percent to 44 percent, following the GOP’s tax cuts becoming law.

“History shows it’s a very difficult cycle in general for Republicans, the party in power, but especially for the House,” said Tim Phillips, president of the conservative outside group Americans for Prosperity, who has been sounding the alarm about a possible blue wave in November.

If Republicans lose a net 24 seats, “we’ll have [Rep.] Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiPelosi condemns Trump's 'cowardly, disgusting' ban on transgender troops Trump threatens to veto omnibus over lack of wall funding, DACA fix Congress votes to expand deficit — and many in GOP are unhappy MORE [D-Calif.] back as Speaker, which is a terrible thought for anyone who wants freedom and prosperity and the economy to keep moving forward,” he said.

GOP leaders need to “keep driving bold policy and policy victories that are significant,” he added.

Both Phillips and Rep. Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerCongress votes to expand deficit — and many in GOP are unhappy Conservatives fear being steamrolled by Dems on funding bill Congress may pass background check legislation in funding bill MORE (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, are urging leadership to press forward with criminal-justice reform. A Baptist preacher, Walker believes many of America’s systemic social problems, including poverty and what he sees as the breakdown of the traditional family, stem from a broken justice system paralyzed by high incarceration and recidivism rates.

“I don’t know how sexy that’s going to be here. ... It’s not a red meat thing,” Walker told The Hill. “But those issues need to be talked about by Republicans.”

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanYou just can't keep good health policy down Trump blasts Congress for sending him omnibus bill that 'nobody read' Students bash Congress for inaction on gun control MORE (R-Wis.) has promised for months that Congress would act to ease the threat of deportation for hundreds of thousands of immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children. And in the aftermath of the Florida school shooting, President TrumpDonald John TrumpScarborough mocks 'Deflection Don' over transgender troop ban Pelosi condemns Trump's 'cowardly, disgusting' ban on transgender troops Trump moves to ban most transgender people from serving in military MORE is now demanding Congress take action on gun restrictions, including expanding background checks.

Those issues — immigration and gun control — won’t play well with the conservative base, and they could crowd a quickly diminishing midterm election–year calendar. The House shortened its current workweek so that the Rev. Billy Graham, who recently died, could lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda. Last week, both the House and Senate were on recess.

Not all conservatives are on the same page, however, when asked what Republicans should tackle next in year two of the Trump presidency.

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsTrump signs massive spending bill, backing away from veto threat Deficit hawks encourage Trump veto of spending bill House Judiciary chair subpoenas DOJ for FBI documents MORE (R-N.C.), who is close to Trump, said the president’s $200 billion infrastructure plan will probably be the next big-ticket item that congressional Republicans tackle. But Meadows, a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he’d like to see that plan coupled with legislation to make the tax law’s temporary tax cuts for individuals permanent.

“We need to turn to making the tax cuts permanent. I think you’ll see a vote on the House floor by April 15,” which is Tax Day, Meadows said in a brief interview.

“I think everybody believes they need to put in a full day’s work,” Meadows said of the broader 2018 agenda. “That doesn’t mean that they coast between now and November.”

Former Rep. Tim HuelskampTimothy (Tim) Alan HuelskampGreen groups sue EPA for correspondence with climate skeptic group Scott Pruitt is leading the EPA toward greatness Right warns GOP agenda can’t stop at Trump’s tax law MORE (R-Kan.) echoed Meadows on that point: Republicans can’t grow complacent.

“Things are moving too quickly to think you can just sit here for nine or 10 months and do nothing,” said Huelskamp, who is now president of the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank in Illinois. “I mean, they might end up doing nothing, but it’s a new world. People are demanding more.”

Pressure to act is coming from conservative grass-roots activists as well. Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio, a Tea Party Republican and Trump supporter, was one of many attendees of last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference who urged lawmakers to stay on offense.

“It’s the biggest mistake Republicans can make: If they cannot keep this country going forward, they will be attacked in the midterms,” DiCiccio said. “The minute you go on defense, then you are just guarding your turf. You always have to go on offense.”

Unlike Meadows, Huelskamp doesn’t see much hope for a pricey infrastructure package this year, especially right after Congress approved a budget deal that boosts spending by about $400 billion over the next two years.

“Republicans will vote for a gas-tax increase and give back 60 percent of the tax cuts they just passed? That’s not going to happen,” Huelskamp said.

Instead of infrastructure, Huelskamp said, Republicans should take up legislation by Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonOvernight Health Care: House passes .3T omnibus | Bill boosts funds for NIH, opioid treatment | Senators spar over ObamaCare fix | 'Right to Try' bill heads to the Senate GOP pushes to change Senate rules for Trump House passes 'right to try' drug bill MORE (R-Wis.) that would give terminally ill patients the “right to try” experimental drugs that have not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The bill already passed the Senate but is being amended in the House to address FDA concerns. 

“They should be looking at things like that that push back a little bit on the government,” Huelskamp said.

At a Lincoln-Reagan Dinner in his native Wisconsin over the weekend, Ryan pushed back on political pundits and those in his own party who are writing the GOP’s obituary this fall.

“We’re not going to get down. We’re not going to get out. We’re not going to have this historical tidal wave of midterm election funk get in our heads,” Ryan told Republicans in Pewaukee, Wis.

Because of the GOP’s accomplishments and results, he said, “we’re going to win.”

The Speaker spent the bulk of his 20-minute speech talking up the benefits of the $1.5 trillion Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. As a result of the act, Americans have started seeing more take-home pay and dozens of U.S. corporations are handing their workers bonuses — a message that Ryan and his leadership team have hammered home in countless press releases, cable TV hits and tweets.

That repetition eventually will begin to pay off as voters become more familiar with the tax-cut law, many in the party say.

“I think the base knows [the benefits], the political class knows it, the Democrats know it, but average Americans who are busy living their lives are only starting to look at it,” said Phillips, of American for Prosperity.

But in that same speech, Ryan quickly skimmed over what he’d like Republicans to take up next: welfare reform.

“We’re moving on to workforce development to make sure that people who are able-bodied and on welfare actually go to work,” Ryan said. “That we pull people out of welfare [and] into the workforce because it’s good for them, it’s good for society, it’s exactly what we need to do to get people back in the job market.”

However, Walker, the Republican Study Committee chairman, said it’s “disingenuous” for Ryan and other Republicans to be discussing welfare reform without talking about overhauling the criminal-justice system. He wants to see both issues move in tandem.

“I’m here to work on issues that impact our minority communities. All of us should be concerned that one out of nine African-American men are incarcerated. One out of three do not have a high school education or GED,” Walker said in the interview.

“Republicans have not been talking about those kinds of things.”