GOP ponders how to fill rest of 2018

GOP ponders how to fill rest of 2018
© Greg Nash

Republican leaders are mulling what to do for the rest of the year after passing a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending package. 

Legislative activity will slow down dramatically after the Easter recess as vulnerable incumbents seek to spend more time campaigning ahead of the fall midterm elections.

GOP leaders haven’t said much about what’s next.

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Infrastructure will now take center stage, but there are deep divisions within the party over the scope of the legislation, how much it should cost and how to pay for it.

Senate Energy Committee Chairwoman Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiThis week: GOP mulls vote on ‘abolish ICE’ legislation Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick McConnell: Senate to confirm Kavanaugh by Oct. 1 MORE (R-Alaska) wants it to include energy infrastructure development.

Commerce Committee Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenators share their fascination with sharks at hearing Helsinki summit becomes new flashpoint for GOP anger Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash MORE (R-S.D.) wants it to include broadband development in rural areas.

Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeTrump’s policies, actions create divide on Russia New EPA chief draws sharp contrast to Pruitt Senate takes symbolic shot at Trump tariffs MORE (R-Okla.) wants the package to focus on traditional infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges.

And while Republicans agree that the package should be paid for with a mix of public and private financing, there’s no agreement on how much taxpayers should kick in.

Conservatives led by Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsMeadows calls ex-Trump aide surveillance docs 'potentially groundbreaking development' Freedom Caucus lawmakers call on DOJ to probe Rosenstein allegations House GOP questions FBI lawyer for second day MORE (R-N.C.), the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, said at the joint Senate–House GOP retreat in West Virginia that the federal government should contribute no more than $200 million.

Other GOP lawmakers argue that Congress needs to spend more money to achieve something close to the $1 trillion package that President TrumpDonald John TrumpSchiff: Surveillance warrant docs show that Nunes memo 'misrepresented and distorted these applications' Chicago detention facility under investigation following allegations of abuse of migrant children Ex-Trump aide: Surveillance warrants are 'complete ignorance' and 'insanity' MORE promised during the 2016 campaign.

If the infrastructure package stalls, GOP leaders are looking at smaller, less-controversial bills.

Reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration and another bill responding to the opioid epidemic, called CARA 2.0 — sponsored by Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGOP to White House: End summit mystery US to provide additional 0M in defensive aid to Ukraine Senate GOP attempts to wave Trump off second Putin summit MORE (R-Ohio) — are options. Congress passed the first version of the opioids measure, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, in 2016.

Portman also has a bill sponsored with Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineGraham would consider US-Russia military coordination in Syria Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick Election Countdown: Latest on the 2018 Senate money race | Red-state Dems feeling the heat over Kavanaugh | Dem doubts about Warren | Ocasio-Cortez to visit Capitol Hill | Why Puerto Ricans in Florida could swing Senate race MORE (D-Va.) to expand Pell Grant eligibility to help workers enter short-term training programs for technically demanding jobs.

It has White House support, according to GOP aides.  

Senate committees are due to report legislation addressing water and broadband infrastructure that could become the building blocks for a bigger package later this year.

“There’s going to be a WRDA bill out of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Commerce, I’m sure, will be doing something on broadband,” Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump and Congress at odds over Russia Senate GOP attempts to wave Trump off second Putin summit Senators push to clear backlog in testing rape kits MORE (R-Texas) told The Hill, referring to the Water Resources Development Act.  

He noted that the omnibus package included hundreds of millions of dollars for unspecified infrastructure projects.

“You can begin to see how that might come together as a package,” he added.

Two issues that sparked intense debate in Congress in February and March, immigration and gun violence, are not expected to come to the floor anytime soon.

The omnibus included a measure known as the Fix NICS Act designed to improve reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, dimming the chances of a vote on universal background checks, which Democrats are demanding.

“Republicans lobbied hard to get Fix NICS in the budget so that they didn’t have to have an open debate on the Senate floor,” said Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDem senator ties Kavanaugh confirmation vote to Trump-Putin controversy Full interview: Chris Murphy speaks out on the Trump-Putin meeting and what it means Dem senator: NATO has become 'functionally obsolete' under Trump MORE (D-Conn.), an outspoken voice on gun violence.

Legislation to curb the rising costs of insurance premiums, which are expected to rise faster because of the repeal of ObamaCare’s individual mandate, is also in limbo because of a fight over abortion language.

“If it’s not in the omnibus bill, there’s no next step,” said Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderMontana governor raises profile ahead of potential 2020 bid Dems pressure GOP to take legal action supporting pre-existing conditions Trump administration to explore importing prescription drugs MORE (R-Tenn.), who is chairman of the Senate Health Committee, shortly before Congress passed the spending bill without the provisions to stabilize insurance markets.   

The most pressing priority after the break will be to confirm Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump privately frustrated over lack of progress with North Korea: report Russian diplomat calls on Pompeo to free accused Russian agent Pelosi: 'Thug' Putin not welcome in Congress MORE and Gina Haspel, Trump’s picks to head the State Department and CIA, respectively.

Pompeo is likely to have a relatively smooth ride to confirmation, as he received 66 votes to serve as CIA director last year.

Haspel’s prospects are cloudier as senators have questions about her record on using harsh interrogation tactics.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Memo: Summit fallout hits White House Graham: Biggest problem is Trump ‘believes meddling equals collusion’ Obama, Bush veterans dismiss Trump-Putin interpreter subpoena MORE (R-Ariz.) last week asked Haspel, now the deputy director of the CIA, to explain her role in the agency’s enhanced interrogation program.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump and Congress at odds over Russia GOP leader blocks resolution backing intelligence community on Russia Rand Paul blocks Sanders's Russia resolution, calls it 'crazy hatred' against Trump MORE (R-Ky.) has accused her of helping to develop techniques that the federal government now classifies as torture and of destroying video evidence.

Beyond their nominations, there are hundreds of jobs within the administration that still need Senate confirmation.

The Senate has a backlog of 131 nominees, according to the Partnership for Public Service, which tracks the process.

McConnell set up six nominations before the Senate left for the recess. The debate, and running through the procedural clock, could easily eat up weeks of April floor time. 

The Senate could get further bogged down in nomination fights if Trump fires more of his Cabinet, as he’s reportedly been contemplating for weeks.

As the midterm elections near, GOP leaders will look for bills that would help their candidates go on the offensive in September and October.

They are flirting with moving another tax-reform bill and daring vulnerable centrist Democrats to oppose it.

“Can you imagine Democrats voting that down? I mean, how do you explain that one?” Cornyn said. 

On another front, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is gearing up to revive the chamber’s war authorization debate.

Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerHistory argues for Democratic Senate gains GOP to White House: End summit mystery The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and Congress at odds over Russia MORE (R-Tenn.) has scheduled a markup of an authorization for the use of military force for April 19.

But Corker may have difficulty getting floor time for the measure, which divides Republicans. Many in the party don’t want to place limits on Trump’s war powers.