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.


“Nothing’s going to get done this year,” acknowledged a senior Republican aide, noting divisions over President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump hails Arizona Senate for audit at Phoenix rally, slams governor Arkansas governor says it's 'disappointing' vaccinations have become 'political' Watch live: Trump attends rally in Phoenix MORE’s proposed $1.5 trillion infrastructure package and immigration.

Internal divisions are a major reason why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHouse Democrats grow frustrated as they feel ignored by Senate Democrats question GOP shift on vaccines Has Trump beaten the system? 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 McCainMeghan McCain on Pelosi, McCarthy fight: 'I think they're all bad' Democrats seek to counter GOP attacks on gas prices Biden nominates Jeff Flake as ambassador to Turkey 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 MeadowsTrump to Pence on Jan. 6: 'You don't have the courage' Trump said whoever leaked information about stay in White House bunker should be 'executed,' author claims 'Just say we won,' Giuliani told Trump aides on election night: book 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 CapitoOfficials warn of cybersecurity vulnerabilities in water systems Graham, Hawley call on Judiciary Committee to hold hearing on US-Mexico border GOP senators urge Biden to keep Trump-era border restrictions 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 MurkowskiWhy Biden's Interior Department isn't shutting down oil and gas Biden signs bill to bolster crime victims fund Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor 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 ThuneFrustration builds as infrastructure talks drag On The Money: Senate braces for nasty debt ceiling fight | Democrats pushing for changes to bipartisan deal | Housing prices hit new high in June Transit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal 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 InhofeGillibrand expects vote on military justice bill in fall The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Biden backs Cuban protesters, assails 'authoritarian regime' Trump getting tougher for Senate GOP to ignore 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 RyanTrump clash ahead: Ron DeSantis positions himself as GOP's future in a direct-mail piece Cutting critical family support won't solve the labor crisis Juan Williams: Trump's GOP descends into farce 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 braces for a nasty debt ceiling fight Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor How Sen. Graham can help fix the labor shortage with commonsense immigration reform MORE (R-S.C.) and Bill CassidyBill CassidyBipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor The Hill's Morning Report - High-profile COVID-19 infections spark new worries GOP centrists call on Schumer to delay infrastructure vote 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.