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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 MurkowskiWhite House briefed on bipartisan infrastructure deal but says questions remain Bipartisan Senate group announces infrastructure deal The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden mission abroad: reward friends, constrain adversaries MORE (R-Alaska) wants it to include energy infrastructure development.

Commerce Committee Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph Thune'The era of bipartisanship is over': Senate hits rough patch Bipartisan talks sow division among Democrats Senate passes long-delayed China bill MORE (R-S.D.) wants it to include broadband development in rural areas.

Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Citizens' Climate Lobby - Biden floats infrastructure, tax concessions to GOP Overnight Defense: Pentagon pitches 5B budget | Kamala Harris addresses US Naval Academy graduates Pentagon pitches 5B budget with cuts to older weapons 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 MeadowsBiden's no-drama White House chief Ex-Trump aide Meadows pushed DOJ to probe multiple election theories: report Trump working with Gingrich on policy agenda: report 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 TrumpTrump DOJ demanded metadata on 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses, Apple says Putin says he's optimistic about working with Biden ahead of planned meeting Biden meets Queen Elizabeth for first time as president 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 PortmanThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Bipartisan group reaches infrastructure deal; many questions remain Al Gore lobbied Biden to not scale back climate plans in infrastructure deal White House briefed on bipartisan infrastructure deal but says questions remain 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 KaineOvernight Defense: Pentagon details military construction projects getting .2B restored from wall funds | Biden chooses former commander to lead Navy | Bill seeks to boost visa program for Afghans who helped US Cotton, Pentagon chief tangle over diversity training in military Democrats try to pin down Manchin on voting rights 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 CornynBipartisan lawmakers want Biden to take tougher action on Nicaragua Bipartisan Senate group announces infrastructure deal McConnell: 'Good chance' for infrastructure deal after talks unravel 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 MurphyAntsy Democrats warn of infrastructure time crunch 'The era of bipartisanship is over': Senate hits rough patch Senate gun background check talks hit wall 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 AlexanderLamar AlexanderAuthorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate The Republicans' deep dive into nativism Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain 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 PompeoMike Pompeo Sunday shows preview: Infrastructure expected to dominate as talks continue to drag The triumph and tragedy of 1989: Why Tiananmen still matters Pence slams Biden agenda in New Hampshire speech 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 McCainMeghan McCain: Harris 'sounded like a moron' discussing immigration Arizona AG Mark Brnovich launches Senate challenge to Mark Kelly Arizona Democrats launch voter outreach effort ahead of key Senate race 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 PaulFauci to Chelsea Clinton: The 'phenomenal amount of hostility' I face is 'astounding' GOP's attacks on Fauci at center of pandemic message Fox host claims Fauci lied to Congress, calls for prosecution 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 CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  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.