Republicans seek Plan B on midterm messaging

Greg Nash

Republicans are working on a backup plan in case the GOP tax law does not turn out to be a strong selling point for their party in this year’s midterm elections.

While the booming economy is expected to be a core pillar of the GOP’s midterm messaging, it’s unclear whether the party is going to get credit for the tax law, which has lagged in polls.

{mosads}As a result, GOP leaders on both sides of the Capitol are emphasizing a breadth of legislative achievements as they seek to convince voters to keep them in charge and not deliver majorities to Democrats.

To bolster their case, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) point to a flurry of wide-ranging bills sent to President Trump’s desk last month.

But congressional leaders say their plan all along has been to sell the GOP’s entire package of accomplishments, including tax reform.

McConnell has been on a media blitz in recent weeks to tout the Senate’s work.

In an interview with The Hill late last month, McConnell highlighted last year’s $1.5 trillion tax-cut package, but also pointed to increased spending for the military, 15 repealed regulations and the confirmation of a conservative Supreme Court justice and 21 conservative circuit court judges.

Ryan and his top lieutenants have made a similar pitch.

“We’re doing more things this week to continue to establish our priorities,” Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) told reporters Wednesday. “It’s not just lowering taxes for families, but it’s taking care of our military and taking care of our veterans.”

In another move meant to paint the portrait of Republicans hard at work, McConnell announced Tuesday he would cancel most of the August recess so that senators could work through spending bills and Trump’s nominations before a Sept. 30 funding deadline.

The decision has the added benefit of keeping dozens of Democratic senators off the campaign trail in August.

“We think we have a good chance of passing a number of appropriations bills,” McConnell told reporters during his weekly news conference on Tuesday. “In order to do that, and deal with this nominations backlog, we need to be here in August.”

It’s unclear whether the GOP’s messaging strategy will work, especially when accomplishments on Capitol Hill can be easily overshadowed by more dramatic developments coming out of the White House.

The same week that Congress sent a trio of bills to Trump’s desk, for example, the president dominated the news cycle by canceling a planned historic summit with North Korea.

The GOP Congress also has come up short on some of Trump’s chief priorities, disappointing the president and his most fervent supporters.

Despite majorities in both chambers and control of the White House, Republicans failed to repeal and replace ObamaCare or fund Trump’s signature border wall.

Trump has bashed Congress over the failure on the wall in particular, to the chagrin of Republicans, who think it shortchanges the accomplishments that have been secured.

“I’d like the president to talk about it more often and I believe he will going into the fall campaign,” McConnell said of the GOP’s successes.

The effort to push a more aggressive Republican agenda could please some conservatives, who have said tax reform alone is not enough to run on in the midterms.

“You can’t just rest on your laurels,” Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, told The Hill on Wednesday. “You’ve got to keep fulfilling your promises to the American people.”

While the tax law’s poll numbers have improved, GOP strategists point out that some voters may not see the benefits until next year.

And there are also some concerns that the economic gains from the tax law could be wiped out after Trump slapped tariffs on steel and aluminum imports worldwide, including from the European Union, Canada and Mexico.

Trump has threatened to follow up with additional tariffs on foreign cars and has also talked about imposing new tariffs on imports from China.

It can be difficult to accomplish major policy items in election years, with less time on the legislative calendar and vulnerable members reluctant to take any tough votes.

But in recent months, Congress has seen an uptick in activity, with Trump signing legislation to ease financial regulations, improve how veterans access health care and allow terminally ill patients to try experimental drugs.

The House, which also passed a bipartisan prison reform bill last month, plans to take up legislation next week to combat the nation’s deadly opioid crisis — an issue that resonates strongly in many communities around the country.

Congressional leaders want to avoid passing another short-term funding patch this year and are hoping to move spending legislation through both chambers before the end of September.

Since it is the last train leaving the station, lawmakers will surely push to attach a number of priorities to the legislation.

But if there are poison pill amendments — or if Trump refuses to sign any spending measure that doesn’t contain money for his border wall — it could bring Congress to the brink of another shutdown just weeks before the midterms. That could chip away at the GOP’s argument that they are effective legislators.

“It could be a real mess if it leads to a shut down,” said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist and opinion contributor for The Hill. “So there’s still some political risk out there for Republicans.”

Alexander Bolton contributed.

Tags Donald Trump Mark Walker Mitch McConnell Paul Ryan Steve Scalise
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