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Which State of the Union proposals might actually happen — and which won’t

Are Trump’s State of the Union proposals going anywhere in Congress? Here are some educated guesses.

President Trump, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, gestures as he delivers the State of the Union address.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

State of the Union speeches are defined by a charade: The president gives his laundry list of policy priorities, and the lawmakers watching in the House chamber promptly forget about most of them.

With the president’s constitutional duty to update the Congress on “the state of the union” met, life continues as it had before.

Still, what the president wants matters. The only bills likely to become law in the next two years are the bills President Trump is willing to sign — although that doesn’t mean Congress is in much of a hurry to do everything he wants (like when he asked House Democrats to stop investigating him).

President Trump delivers the State of the Union address in the chamber of the US House of Representatives on February 5, 2019.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

This year, Trump named a bunch of bills he wants Congress to pass in the next year on health care, immigration, and trade. Most of them probably aren’t going anywhere. But a few of them might.

The reality is both sides are needed to pass anything into law, and thus, many of Trump’s ideas are dead on arrival because they are unpalatable to one chamber of Congress. But a few of them have a real shot. Let’s go through which is which.

These Trump SOTU proposals really could actually happen

Nominees: Most prosaically, Trump wants the Senate to confirm Trump nominees they’ve failed to confirm so far, portraying it as the most basic compromise and in keeping with the spirit of unity that was the theme of his speech:

This new era of cooperation can start with finally confirming the more than 300 highly qualified nominees who are still stuck in the Senate — some after years of waiting. The Senate has failed to act on these nominations, which is unfair to the nominees and to our country.

Are all 300 nominees going to get confirmed at once? Probably not. Trump has blamed Democrats for obstructing his nominees — and they have used their procedural tools to slow them down — but, as PolitiFact documented, there have been legitimate questions about some of Trump’s picks, and the White House has not always been proactive about filling out the executive branch.

Nevertheless, it’s fair to expect some of Trump’s nominees will move in the coming months, as the president requested.

Funding for HIV and childhood cancer: Trump is also asking Congress to approve funding to support his administration’s new goal of eliminating HIV in the United States by 2030:

My budget will ask Democrats and Republicans to make the needed commitment to eliminate the HIV epidemic in the United States within 10 years. Together, we will defeat AIDS in America.

Presidents’ budgets are just a request, and they often go ignored. But public health and medical research tend to be some of the areas where lawmakers honor the White House’s wishes, and it would be a surprise if lawmakers didn’t appropriate any money for the HIV fight Trump says he now wants to undertake.

The same rule should apply to Trump’s request for half a billion dollars in childhood cancer research funding:

My budget will ask the Congress for $500 million over the next 10 years to fund this critical lifesaving research.

It’s hard to know today whether Congress will match the exact level of Trump’s request. But Republicans approved former Vice President Joe Biden’s solicitation of nearly $2 billion for a cancer “moonshot” program, and another boost for federal funding on cancer research could soon follow.

These Trump SOTU proposals could maybe happen — but it’ll be tough

Infrastructure: Donald Trump, innovator of Infrastructure Week, still wants to pass a big infrastructure bill:

I know that the Congress is eager to pass an infrastructure bill — and I am eager to work with you on legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment, including investments in the cutting edge industries of the future. This is not an option. This is a necessity.

A major infrastructure investment has thus far been the white whale of Trump’s presidency. As Vox’s Matthew Yglesias has explained, the White House’s own plan had suspect financing and would have actually made federal matching for state and local spending less generous.

Still, many of the newly elected House Democrats from swing districts are (perhaps naively) optimistic about trying to get an infrastructure bill passed. “Our aging infrastructure is starting to affect the health of our children, our families, and the ability to grow our economy,” Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), who won a suburban district that had been held by Republicans since the mid-1980s, told Vox earlier this year.

It hasn’t happened yet for a reason. It’s unlikely. But there is enough interest on both sides that some kind of infrastructure funding can’t be ruled out. Maybe then Infrastructure Week can finally end.

Prescription drug pricing: This is another area of potential, but difficult, compromise. Trump urged Congress to approve a bill that would better align American payments for prescription drugs with those paid by other developed countries:

I am asking the Congress to pass legislation that finally takes on the problem of global freeloading and delivers fairness and price transparency for American patients.

A progressive duo, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), actually introduced a bill in December that shared the same goal, following on an earlier Trump proposal. Democratic leaders have made drug prices a priority for the new Congress, though there is not yet a consensus within the party about the best way to tackle high drug costs.

Price transparency: Trump also urged Congress to require the health care industry to disclose their prices:

We should also require drug companies, insurance companies, and hospitals to disclose real prices to foster competition and bring costs down.

Price transparency isn’t necessarily a tool to bring down costs — shame isn’t much of a strategy — but that also makes it relatively easy, compared to other more aggressive price restrictions, for lawmakers to support.

The problem for both these plans is the enormous influence of pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and health insurers in Congress. Lawmakers have been talking for years about doing more to combat high drug costs and introduce more transparency to health care costs. Little real progress has been made. Some lawmakers — like retiring Senate health chair Lamar Alexander and many of the newly elected Democrats — are invested in this issue, but it’s much easier said than done.

These Trump SOTU proposals will almost certainly never happen

The wall: Trump once again made a case for his Mexican border wall, the issue that shut down the government for more than a month. Congress is currently negotiating an immigration deal with a deadline fast approaching; much of the government requires new funding approval by mid-February.

Trump is using this deadline to make one final push for the wall:

Simply put, walls work and walls save lives. So let’s work together, compromise, and reach a deal that will truly make America safe.

But Democratic leaders have categorically ruled out funding Trump’s wall. They feel they won the shutdown argument, with Trump taking the bulk of the blame in the public’s eyes. It’s extraordinarily difficult to imagine Speaker Nancy Pelosi capitulating on the wall now.

Tariffs: Trump also asked Congress to pass a bill that would give him broad authority to impose tariffs in retribution for other countries’ protectionism:

Tonight, I am also asking you to pass the United States Reciprocal Trade Act, so that if another country places an unfair tariff on an American product, we can charge them the exact same tariff on the same product that they sell to us.

Business-minded Republicans don’t like tariffs. A lot of Democrats don’t like tariffs. The US Chamber of Commerce fiercely opposes this legislation. This is probably not happening.

New abortion restrictions: Trump also wants a bill restriction abortions passed, citing the recent controversy in Virginia that has ensnared Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam:

To defend the dignity of every person, I am asking the Congress to pass legislation to prohibit the late-term abortion of children who can feel pain in the mother’s womb.

Given the vehement disagreements between Democrats and Republicans over abortion, such a bill will almost certainly not pass this Congress.

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