President Donald Trump is desperate not to look like a loser. Mired in scandal and facing public testimony from his former FBI director this week, Trump needs some policy wins. Badly.
So he haphazardly declared this week “infrastructure week” in a feeble and unsuccessful attempt to dictate conversation on Capitol Hill, and held an elaborate “signing ceremony” in the White House that wasn’t for legislation or an executive order at all. Instead, he relished in applause for signing a nonbinding letter to Congress outlining his wish to privatize air traffic control — which no one on Capitol Hill seems hell bent on paying attention to.
Then he turned to top Republicans on Capitol Hill to hear some news on what were supposed to be this year’s big-ticket policy issues: health care and tax reform. He met with Republican congressional leaders in the White House and hosted a dinner with Republican lawmakers Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton on Tuesday.
But Trump’s desire to get some big policy wins fast has hit a snag with the congressional calendar. They have yet to enact a single signature piece of legislation. The Senate has the mere beginnings of its own draft of the health care bill, and tax reform will likely be sitting on the sidelines until it is resolved.
Sure, there have been a lot of distractions — chief among them being Trump’s tangle with investigations into his campaign’s connections to Russia. “There’s no doubt that keeping members focused on investigations detracts from our legislative agenda,” Trump’s director of legislative affairs, Marc Short, told reporters this week, according to Politico. And soon they'll have to turn their attention to must-do work like passing spending bills and raising the debt ceiling.
But Republicans still have to resolve major internal divisions on health care, and the delays are causing a legislative backup in the House. They want to turn to tax reform, but for legislative procedural reasons they have to pass a budget through both the House and Senate first — not an inconsequential feat.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who sits on the Senate Budget Committee, summed up the state of budget talks succinctly: “I don’t know anything about it. I’m on the budget committee and I don’t know,” he said Tuesday. They were planning to handle the budget in June. All this means that congressional Republicans face the possibility of having done nothing of consequence by September 30, the end of their first fiscal year in power.
Taken together, the do-nothing Congress is shaping up to be a major problem for the Republican Party. House Republicans will be back defending their seats in no time. And for Trump, it's a lost opportunity to get where he wants to be — winning.
Republicans thought they had a foolproof strategy. It unraveled.
Starting in January, congressional Republicans had what they thought was a foolproof strategy to get their big-ticket items, health and tax reform, through slim majorities in the House and Senate. It would work if everything went just right.
They’ve been attempting to push these two major agenda items through a complicated process called budget reconciliation. It allows Republicans to pass their legislation with only 51 votes in Senate, steering clear of Democrats looking to stall the majority party’s agenda with the filibuster.
But internal discord has stalled the process, and ever since, Republican legislators have been wading into uncharted legislative waters.
Budget reconciliation has the prerequisite of a “budget resolution” — a motion that has to pass both chambers of Congress, usually on party lines, to establish topline budget numbers and give instructions for “reconciliation” bills. There can only be one budget reconciliation bill per budget resolution.
The health bill is currently under 2017 budget reconciliation instructions, and Republicans are hoping to pass 2018 budget reconciliation instructions for tax reform. In their fantasy world free of party infighting, Republicans figured they would pass the American Health Care Act quickly, then pass the 2018 budget resolution, and then move on to tax reform under reconciliation.
But the health care bill has been anything but quick. The Senate has only just begun to have more granular conversations about a health care bill, and it’s been taking longer than Republican leadership planned.
"I think it’s more likely to fail than not, with Republican Party only," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said of healing the party divides on health care Tuesday. Senate leadership may be willing to vote on a health bill they know will fail, just to say they tried and can move on.
These delays mean the budget reconciliation process is only getting more complicated and confusing, because it’s looking increasingly likely that two reconciliation bills will run up against each other — and no one knows with certainty what the process is for that.
The new strategy is unprecedented — and Republicans disagree about how it actually works
Two budget reconciliation bills overlapping with each other would be new for Congress.
“It’s never been tested,” Gordon Gray, director of fiscal policy for the conservative American Action Forum and a former policy adviser for Sens. Rob Portman and John McCain, told Vox in February. And, based on conversations with congressional aides in both parties and outside experts, there are a lot of contradictory ideas on how this would actually play out under the Senate’s procedural rules.
House Republicans, eager to move to tax reform, are under the impression that if Congress can pass a 2018 budget resolution, they can move on to tax reform under new reconciliation instructions and vote on a tax reform bill, even if health care remains unresolved in the Senate. Under this interpretation, Senate rules would prevent the House from sending their tax bill to the Senate until both the House and Senate passed the health bill.
But again, this would require both the House and Senate to pass a budget resolution first — and there hasn’t been much movement in the Senate on that front.
Republicans know they are not invincible to political pressures: Health care and tax reform were always going to be politically difficult issues for Republicans in vulnerable congressional seats, and delaying negotiations only raises the stakes.
So in other words, there isn’t any firm procedural deadline looming over Republicans that would close the window on health care and tax reform negotiations, necessarily. Instead their own internal party politics is holding back their agenda.
It’s not just the agenda that’s holding them back — they have to keep the economy running too
But even if Congress wasn’t trying to overhaul the health care system and the tax code, they still have a lot of things they need to do just to keep the government and economy running.
The Treasury Department is expected to hit the “debt ceiling” in the fall — and as Vox’s Matt Yglesias explained, if Treasury doesn’t raise it, it will be yet another “brush with national economic calamity, followed by the imposition of a severe fiscal austerity regime that caused a few years’ worth of slow-burn economic pain” last time. This should be an easy bipartisan fix, but the White House seems to be bungling its messaging on what it wants to do, and time is running out. Similarly, Congress will also have to pass spending bills by September 30 to fund the government through 2018, which will likely be weeks of negotiations.
Taking on ambitious legislation on top of all this is a hard sell for vulnerable Republicans. With Democrats are already eyeing winning the majority in the House in 2018, and possibly taking two Republican seats in the Senate, votes on unpopular bills like the AHCA are easy fodder for campaign attack ads.
Paired that with an extraordinarily unpopular Republican president in the White House, and things are looking tough for Republicans in moderate states.
There is still time for Republicans to pull off the ambitious game plan. The Senate could vote on health care by July, like leadership has floated, and ramp up a push behind tax reform.
But time is ticking, and there have already been delays in the calendar. That only means the difficult votes will come even closer to Election Day 2018.