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 MurkowskiSenators will have access to intelligence on Russian bounties on US troops Overnight Defense: Lawmakers demand answers on reported Russian bounties for US troops deaths in Afghanistan | Defense bill amendments target Germany withdrawal, Pentagon program giving weapons to police Senators push to limit transfer of military-grade equipment to police MORE (R-Alaska) wants it to include energy infrastructure development.

Commerce Committee Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneRepublicans fear backlash over Trump's threatened veto on Confederate names McConnell: Trump shouldn't veto defense bill over renaming Confederate bases Senate Republicans defend Trump's response on Russian bounties MORE (R-S.D.) wants it to include broadband development in rural areas.

Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeRepublicans fear backlash over Trump's threatened veto on Confederate names Senate rejects Paul proposal on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan Liberal veterans group urges Biden to name Duckworth VP 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 Randall MeadowsAtlanta airport checkpoint closed after worker tests positive for coronavirus House Republicans urge White House to support TSA giving travelers temperature checks The Hill's Morning Report - Republicans shift, urge people to wear masks 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 John TrumpSecret Service members who helped organize Pence Arizona trip test positive for COVID-19: report Trump administration planning pandemic office at the State Department: report Iran releases photo of damaged nuclear fuel production site: report 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 12:30 Report: Democratic proposal to extend 0 unemployment checks Senate Democrats offer plan to extend added jobless benefits during pandemic Senators press IRS chief on stimulus check pitfalls 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: Lawmakers demand answers on reported Russian bounties for US troops deaths in Afghanistan | Defense bill amendments target Germany withdrawal, Pentagon program giving weapons to police Senators aim to limit Trump's ability to remove troops from Germany Filibuster reform gains steam with Democrats 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 CornynSenators push foreign media to disclose if they are registered as foreign agents GOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday New legislation required to secure US semiconductor leadership 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 MurphyConnecticut senators call for Subway to ban open carry of firearms Democrats optimistic about chances of winning Senate Gridlock mires chances of police reform deal 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 AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Watchdog accuses Commerce of holding up 'Sharpiegate' report | Climate change erases millennia of cooling: study | Senate nixes proposal limiting Energy Department's control on nuclear agency budget Senate nixes proposal limiting Energy Department's control on nuclear agency budget Doug Jones cuts pro-mask campaign ad: 'Our health depends on each other' 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 PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoIran releases photo of damaged nuclear fuel production site: report To support Hong Kong's freedom, remember America's revolution Senate passes sanctions bill targeting China over Hong Kong law 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 McCainJuan Williams: Time for boldness from Biden Democrats lead in three battleground Senate races: poll Republican Scott Taylor wins Virginia primary, to face Elaine Luria in rematch 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 PaulGOP Arizona lawmaker says Fauci and Birx 'undermine' Trump's coronavirus response Fauci: 'We are not going in the right direction' FBI says Breonna Taylor case is 'top priority' for Louisville agents 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 clashes with Trump Sessions-Tuberville Senate runoff heats up in Alabama GOP lawmakers stick to Trump amid new criticism 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.