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 TrumpSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Ex-Trump staffer out at CNN amid “false and defamatory accusations” Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her MORE’s proposed $1.5 trillion infrastructure package and immigration.

Internal divisions are a major reason why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDoug Jones to McConnell: Don't 'plow right through' with Kavanaugh Kavanaugh accuser agrees to testify next week GOP, Kavanaugh accuser struggle to reach deal 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 McCainTrump hits McCain on ObamaCare vote GOP, White House start playing midterm blame game Arizona race becomes Senate GOP’s ‘firewall’ 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 MeadowsRepublicans threaten to subpoena Nellie Ohr Conservatives left frustrated as Congress passes big spending bills Graham to renew call for second special counsel 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 CapitoThis week: Democrats pledge ‘sparks’ in Kavanaugh hearing Congress faces September scramble on spending California passes bill to ban controversial drift net fishing 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 MurkowskiKavanaugh accuser agrees to testify next week Murkowski says she’ll wait until Ford testifies before making decision on Kavanaugh Alaska gov, lieutenant gov come out against Kavanaugh 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 ThuneGoogle says it continues to allow apps to access Gmail user data Fight looms over national privacy law Want to improve health care? Get Americans off of their couches 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 InhofePentagon releases report on sexual assault risk Trump privately calls Mattis ‘Moderate Dog’: report Cruz gets help from Senate GOP in face of serious challenge from O’Rourke 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 RyanHow does the 25th Amendment work? Sinema, Fitzpatrick call for long-term extension of Violence Against Women Act GOP super PAC drops .5 million on Nevada ad campaign 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 GrahamSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Kim, Moon toss ball to Trump in ‘last, best chance’ for Korean peace GOP senator: Kavanaugh accuser 'moving the goalposts' MORE (R-S.C.) and Bill CassidyWilliam (Bill) Morgan CassidyOvernight Health Care: Opioids package nears finish line | Measure to help drug companies draws ire | Maryland ObamaCare rates to drop Overnight Health Care: HHS diverts funds to pay for detaining migrant children | Health officials defend transfers | Lawmakers consider easing drug company costs in opioids deal Overnight Health Care: Senators target surprise medical bills | Group looks to allow Medicaid funds for substance abuse programs | FDA launches anti-vaping campaign for teens 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.