Victorious on taxes, GOP wonders: What’s next?
Still basking in their tax victory, President Trump and Republican leaders are grappling with a key question: What major legislative issue should they pursue next?
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has made clear that he wants to tackle welfare and entitlement reforms next year — perhaps using a special budget process to avoid a Democratic filibuster. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sent a different signal, saying Senate Republicans should look to pursue more bipartisan legislation in the coming year.
White House officials are already setting high expectations, saying the administration will begin its push for welfare reform, entitlement reform and a major infrastructure package at the start of the new year.
And many conservatives are pressing GOP leadership to take another crack at repealing ObamaCare, despite the push for legislation in January that is intended to stabilize the law’s insurance markets.
“When I go back home, the No. 1 issue, by far, is still ObamaCare and major health-care reform that’s needed to bring these skyrocketing premiums to an end,” Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), one of the leaders of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, told The Hill.
Even as they hammer out their priorities, GOP leaders will spend the opening weeks of the new year racing to lift spending caps and fund the government before money runs out on Jan. 19. That budget deal could be paired with a bipartisan agreement to shield thousands of young immigrants brought to the country as children who have participated in the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Early in 2018, lawmakers also need to hike the debt ceiling and strike a longer-term deal to extend a controversial spying program that allows the government to collect data without a warrant on foreign targets.
All of these issues will be vying for attention and floor time in a year when the window for action is already small. With the midterm elections looming in November, lawmakers are likely to spend considerable time away from Washington in 2018, particularly in the late summer and fall.
With polls trending toward the Democrats, Republicans will be eager to rack up more accomplishments they can tout to voters.
Trump, Ryan and McConnell will huddle at the White House in early January to review the 2018 agenda, then will lay out their game plan at the joint House-Senate GOP retreat that kicks off Jan. 31 at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.
There are sure to be disagreements.
With his dream of tax reform now realized, Ryan is hoping to make progress on two other issues he’s targeted during his two-decade career in Washington: entitlement and welfare reform.
“We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit,” Ryan, a former Budget Committee chairman, said in a recent interview this month on the Ross Kaminsky radio talk show.
Medicare and Medicaid are the “big drivers of debt,” Ryan said, suggesting Republicans could once again use the budget reconciliation process to avoid a Democratic filibuster.
Medicare is the “biggest entitlement that’s got to have reform,” Ryan added.
While Trump vowed on the 2016 campaign trail that he wouldn’t touch Medicare as president, Ryan suggested Trump may be coming around: “I think the president’s understanding choice and competition works everywhere in health care, especially in Medicare.”
Ryan may find broader support in the GOP for overhauling Medicaid and other safety-net programs.
The Speaker’s 2016 “Better Way” campaign plan called for work requirements for people who receive welfare and food stamps, as well as threatening to remove funding for anti-poverty programs that fail to achieve desired results.
And Trump has shown an appetite for tackling those issues.
“We need to do that. I want to do that,” Trump told Republicans during a recent visit to the Capitol.
McConnell seems to have other ideas. With Alabama Democrat Doug Jones expected to be seated immediately after the new year, the Republican leader will see his already tight 52-48 majority dwindle to a 51-49 margin.
While Ryan wants to keep up the GOP’s full-court press in 2018 — a way to ensure the conservative base stays energized and turns out in the midterm elections — McConnell is wary of entering legislative fights he can’t win.
At an Axios event before the Christmas recess, McConnell said it’s unlikely he will be able to pass major legislation that doesn’t have at least some Democratic support.
“What the Democrats are willing to do is important because in the Senate, with rare exceptions like the tax bill, we’ve got to have Democratic involvement,” McConnell said.
Infrastructure, which was crowded out of the 2017 agenda, would be “pretty popular with Democrats and Republicans,” McConnell added.
Those remarks were echoed by Trump, who believes he can get a quick victory on a bipartisan infrastructure package in early 2017.
“We’re going to get infrastructure; infrastructure is the easiest of all. … People want it, Republicans and Democrats,” Trump said in the Oval Office as he signed the tax bill into law.
That’s positive news for some Trump allies, who had urged the president at the start of his term to push a bipartisan infrastructure package. GOP leaders instead spent the first seven months of 2017 trying to repeal and replace ObamaCare — an effort that ultimately proved a failure and delayed the rest of the agenda.
“I said last January that we should start with infrastructure first,” said Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.), a Trump backer whose district sits in the rural southwest corner of the Show Me State.
“From the dire needs of our airports, locks and dams, rail, bridges, highways and byways,” Long said, “this would be a great place to work together for the good of all our citizens.”
Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-W.Va.), who is running for the Senate next year, said the joint House-Senate retreat he’s hosting in his district next month will be a great opportunity to “chart a course for the year ahead.”
Trump has made clear to Republicans that “welfare reform is high on his priority list,” Jenkins said. And while ObamaCare’s mandate for individuals to have insurance was repealed in the just-passed tax legislation, there are still a number of unresolved issues dealing with ObamaCare, he said.
“We’ve got a health-care system that has been in the death spiral for years,” Jenkins said. “I hope health care remains an issue.”
The three-day GOP gathering in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., also will give the party a unique opportunity to address the opioid crisis that’s plaguing the Mountain State. Trump declared opioid abuse a public health emergency in October.
“West Virginia has been devastated by the opioid crisis; we are ground zero in many respects,” Jenkins told The Hill in a recent interview. “This is our most challenging public-health issue of our day, and hopefully it will be a top priority.”
Alexander Bolton contributed.