Republican agenda clouded by division

Republican agenda clouded by division
© Greg Nash

Republicans are divided over transportation, immigration and spending coming out of a retreat in West Virginia, clouding the prospect of legislative progress in 2018.

GOP leaders at the retreat focused on the accomplishments of last year more than the divisive issues in front of them as they hope to rally the rank-and-file members ahead of primary season and the November general election.

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“Nothing’s going to get done this year,” acknowledged a senior Republican aide, noting divisions over President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP lawmakers preparing to vote on bill allowing migrant children to be detained longer than 20 days: report Wasserman Schultz: Infants separated from their parents are in Florida immigrant shelters Ex-White House ethics chief: Sarah Sanders tweet violates ethics laws MORE’s proposed $1.5 trillion infrastructure package and immigration.

Internal divisions are a major reason why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMulvaney aims to cement CFPB legacy by ensuring successor's confirmation Senate left in limbo by Trump tweets, House delays Political figures pay tribute to Charles Krauthammer MORE (R-Ky.) is stressing the need to move bipartisan legislation this year.

He knows the party is divided on key issues and also needs to overcome the 60-vote filibuster threshold in the upper chamber.

The looming question, however, is whether McConnell and other GOP leaders are willing to risk a backlash from the conservative base by cutting deals with Democrats — especially with primary elections quickly approaching.

Some suggest the answer is to let senators legislate on the floor, something McConnell has vowed to do on immigration.

“There’s a very to simple way to deal with all these differences of opinions. You can let the legislative process work and they will be adjudicated along the way,” said James Wallner, a GOP policy expert and former Senate aide.

That means giving up some control. Wallner says leaders still appear to favor working out legislative proposals behind closed doors and then trying to pass them with votes mostly along party lines — something that gets much tougher to do when the party is divided.

Divisions on immigration surfaced again on Monday when Trump blasted a proposal co-sponsored by Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMulvaney aims to cement CFPB legacy by ensuring successor's confirmation Trump mocks McCain at Nevada rally Don’t disrespect McCain by torpedoing his clean National Defense Authorization Act MORE (R-Ariz.), who spearheaded Senate passage of a comprehensive immigration bill in 2013, as a “total waste of time.”

Some Republicans are voicing support for a pared-down immigration bill that would trade a deal to protect certain immigrants known as “Dreamers” from deportation in exchange for beefed up border security.

Others say an immigration deal must include other reforms, such as limiting green cards to the nuclear family members of U.S. citizens, ending the diversity visa lottery and giving border agents more power to prosecute people who violate immigration laws.

On infrastructure, fiscal hawks led by Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsGOP lawmaker says evidence might have been tampered with in Flynn case House postpones vote on compromise immigration bill The Hill's 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Delta Air Lines – First lady makes surprise visit to migrant children at border MORE (R-N.C.), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, want to limit the taxpayer contribution for Trump’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure to $200 billion.

But other Republicans, such as Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoSenate panel advances three spending bills Press shuts out lawmakers to win congressional softball game Senate DHS bill includes .6 billion for ‘fencing’ on border MORE (R-W.Va.), a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, say the federal government will have to kick in more than $200 billion to leverage enough private investment to reach Trump’s goal.

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiHeitkamp ad highlights record as Senate race heats up Icebreaking ships are not America’s top priority in the Arctic 13 GOP senators ask administration to pause separation of immigrant families MORE (R-Alaska), who represents a state that has about one person per square mile, is skeptical about relying on private investment to meet the infrastructure needs of her constituents. She notes it took years to get a 10-mile, one-lane, noncommercial road built in her state to link the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay — although the delay was mainly due to it being built through a federal wildlife refuge.

Another point of contention among Republicans is how broadly to define what counts as infrastructure.

Murkowski, who hails from an energy-rich state, says the infrastructure package must include investment for energy infrastructure, while Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneRepublicans agree — it’s only a matter of time for Scott Pruitt Senate moving ahead with border bill, despite Trump On The Money — Sponsored by Prudential — Senators hammers Ross on Trump tariffs | EU levies tariffs on US goods | Senate rejects Trump plan to claw back spending MORE (R-S.D.) says expanding broadband access should also be a goal of infrastructure investment.

Bill Hoagland, senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former senior Senate Republican staffer, argues the infrastructure investment package should be a broad umbrella.

“I think the definition of infrastructure can be written kind of large,” he said. “For me infrastructure is not just roads and bridges.”

But Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense: Defense spending bill amendments target hot-button issues | Space Force already facing hurdles | Senators voice 'deep' concerns at using military lawyers on immigration cases Obstacles to Trump's 'Space Force' could keep proposal grounded for now The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by PhRMA — Trump caves under immense pressure — what now? MORE (Okla.), a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, wants to keep the focus on traditional infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges.

Then there’s the question of what to do about the debt ceiling, which the Congressional Budget Office warns the federal government will hit in early March.

Meadows and other fiscal hawks in the Freedom Caucus are pushing the Trump administration and GOP leaders to attach serious spending reforms to the debt ceiling.

Senate GOP leaders, however, warn that Democrats will likely balk at sticking spending cuts onto a debt-ceiling bill and don’t want to gamble with something that could shake up the economy, especially after the Dow Jones industrial average lost more than 1,100 points on Monday in a flash sell off.

Entitlement reform is a sticking point within the party, generally.

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanLaura Ingraham: George Will is ‘sad and petty’ for urging votes against GOP Seth Rogen: I told Paul Ryan I hate his policies in front of his kids George Will: Vote against GOP in midterms MORE (R-Wis.) revived his push for welfare reform during the party’s three-day retreat in White Sulfur Springs, W.Va., by urging colleagues to work on workforce development.

In December, he promised to tackle “health-care entitlements” such as Medicare and Medicaid, which rank among the biggest drivers of the federal debt.

McConnell has waved off entitlement reform as something that would have a slim chance of passing the narrowly divided Senate, where Republicans control 51 seats.

The divisions are deep enough that GOP leaders are mulling the possibility of not passing a budget this year, something that Senate Republicans promised to do every year when they captured the chamber from Democrats in 2014.

Instead, they are hoping to strike a deal with Democrats that would set the defense and nondefense spending caps for fiscal years 2018 and 2019, something they argue would make it unnecessary to pass another budget before Election Day.

That strategy has the ancillary benefit of avoiding an internal fight over the size of the infrastructure package, welfare reform or whether to set up a special budgetary process known as reconciliation to replace the central pillars of ObamaCare.

GOP leaders have shown little interest in trying to jam through the latest health-care-reform proposal known as Graham–Cassidy — named for the two senators, Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenate panel advances three spending bills Trump says he will sign executive order to end family separations Trump backs narrow bill halting family separations: official MORE (R-S.C.) and Bill CassidyWilliam (Bill) Morgan CassidyOn The Money — Sponsored by Prudential — Trump floats tariffs on European cars | Nikki Haley slams UN report on US poverty | Will tax law help GOP? It's a mystery Overnight Health Care — Presented by the Association of American Medical Colleges — House passes opioid bill | Planned Parenthood sues over teen pregnancy program | Azar to face Senate next week On The Money — Sponsored by Prudential — Supreme Court allows states to collect sales taxes from online retailers | Judge finds consumer bureau structure unconstitutional | Banks clear Fed stress tests MORE (R-La.) who authored it — which would convert ObamaCare funding into block grants and turn more power over to the states.

But conservatives nevertheless hope they can put in place budget reconciliation instructions for health-care reform that would allow them to take another crack at repealing ObamaCare after the election, perhaps spurred on by a pickup of Senate seats.

After all, they note, Democrats have to defend 26 seats, including 10 seats in states that Trump carried in 2016.