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The 5 things the Republican Congress will get done — or at least try to — in 2017

A look at Republicans’ legislative wish-list.

House Speaker Paul Ryan with Melania and Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol after the election.
REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

The Washington, D.C. beat in 2017 is going to revolve around covering a Republican Party that holds the White House and both chambers of Congress for the first time since 2006.

In those 10 years, Republicans have amassed a wish list of things they’d like to get done. Now’s their chance to tackle that list, and the story of 2017 in Washington will be how much progress they make toward those goals, and how effective Democrats will be in blocking them.

The Senate will be the site of most contention over the GOP’s agenda, because Democrats have the procedural tools (like the filibuster) and numbers required to fight back. Republicans will hold 52 seats to Democrats’ 46, with Vice President-elect Mike Pence as the tie-breaker.

In the House of Representatives, the GOP will retain a comfortable majority, holding 241 seats to Democrats’ 194. That chamber has more scheduled days of legislative work than any year since 2010 — a reflection of how productive a Congress leaders are imagining next year.

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Democrats have said they’ll work with President-elect Donald Trump and congressional Republicans where they can, but expect more partisan fireworks than friendly cooperation next year.

Also, don’t expect Trump and Republicans in Congress — many of whom kept him at arm’s length or openly criticized him during the campaign — to always agree, either.

Here are five big GOP agenda items I’ll be watching closely:

1. Obamacare

It’s the big one, the top of the GOP wish list since 2010, the one thing that Republicans believe they must do in the 115th Congress: dismantling the Affordable Care Act.

Congressional Republicans have been champing at the bit to get rid of President Obama’s signature achievement since its passage, voting numerous times on symbolic repeal measures in the House of Representatives.

Angry protest votes were easy enough. Now, with control of the necessary levers of power, comes the hard part for the GOP: figuring out a way to not just repeal Obamacare, but replace it with something else.

The repeal part is relatively simple. GOP leaders forecast a vote to repeal Obamacare as soon as February, which would easily clear the House. In the Senate, Republican leaders will likely use budget reconciliation — the same tactic Democrats used to pass the law in the first place — to ensure a repeal only needs a simple majority of the Senate, not a 60-vote majority.

The replacement will be much harder, in policy and logistics. Earlier this year, Speaker Paul Ryan outlined a plan aiming to make health coverage more affordable through expanding health savings accounts and allowing the purchase of coverage across state lines, among other things.

There is disagreement in the party about whether a repeal should be pursued before a replacement is hammered out. But key leaders are coalescing around a plan that would repeal Obamacare soon and then allow two to four years to figure out a replacement, setting up a potential deadline down the road. (D.C.’s already calling it the “health care cliff.”)

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Minnesota’s Republican representatives all want to see the law gone. Incoming Rep. Jason Lewis made opposition to Obamacare a key plank of his winning campaign in the 2nd District. Rep. Tom Emmer said he expects Obamacare will be toast by February, but said the party needs to proceed with caution in its replacement plans.

How Republicans address Obamacare will be the story not just of 2017, but probably 2018 and 2019, too.

2. Tax reform

Republicans and Democrats have been talking about working on comprehensive tax reform for years. In 2017, those proposals will take on a decidedly more conservative tack.

Broadly, GOP leaders want to lower individual and corporate income tax rates, with a strong focus on the latter: the Ways and Means Committee, which sets taxation policy, has already drawn up a proposal to reduce corporate tax rates from 35 percent to 20 percent.

On other tax issues, Republicans are going to reach for long-held goals. They likely will take aim at the estate tax, which Trump, Ryan, and other GOP leaders want to get rid of. Most Democrats are loath to drop the tax, which would cost about $200 billion over a decade. In a vote in the House last year, only seven Democrats joined Republicans to repeal it.

It’s possible Democrats may not be able to put up much resistance to any of these measures. The budget reconciliation tactic is typically meant to reconcile tax legislation with budget legislation, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that he expects that is how tax reform bills will move in the next Congress.

The member to watch on tax issues will be GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen: the only Minnesotan to serve on Ways and Means, Paulsen has floated an array of tax and health care policy tweaks over the years.

3. Entitlement reform

Any movement from the GOP on Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security could bring some of the messiest politics of 2017.

It is no secret that Republicans would like to “restructure” Medicare, the government’s program to cover seniors’ health care, and Medicaid, which covers low-income people, in order to reduce the programs’ costs. Medicare and Medicaid cost over $1 trillion in 2016 and cover more than 120 million people.

The GOP has long wanted to give states money for Medicaid in the form of block grants; they’ve also pushed varying degrees of privatization for Medicare. Trump’s nomination of Georgia GOP Rep. Tom Price, a very conservative voice on health care, as Secretary of Health and Human Services has only added to speculation.

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In November, Price suggested that a long-desired Medicare reform — a voucher program to let patients use government money to participate in a private plan instead of Medicare — could be included as a rider on a budget bill.

On Social Security, the Republican chair of the Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee floated a bill that would restructure the program. It includes a raise of the retirement age, an idea favored by many conservatives.

Perhaps more than any others, entitlement issues are political third rails in Congress. They will not be as far up on the agenda as Obamacare, but Paul Ryan and others have been itching to take a crack at them for years. They now have the chance.

But this is a fight Democrats relish, and talking points they’re deeply comfortable with. Setting the battle lines for 2017, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has already declared a GOP “war on seniors.”

In entitlement debates, watch Democratic Reps. Rick Nolan and Keith Ellison, two of the most vocal opponents to GOP policy in either chamber.

4. Wall Street reform rollback

Trump’s populist appeal was bolstered by his calls to take on Wall Street. But Republicans in Congress see an opportunity to pass long-awaited measure to deregulate the financial sector, particularly a rollback of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform package.

A repeal of the entire law, which is 2,300 pages and incredibly complex, probably won’t happen this Congress.

But Republicans could chip away at pillars of Dodd-Frank, like the so-called “Volcker rule,” which prevents big banks from making certain kinds of risky investments. They also will likely target the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, defanging it by replacing its director with a board and by giving Congress control over its budget.

Emmer, a vocal critic of Dodd-Frank, is on the House Financial Services panel, and could play a role in this debate. Ellison, a staunch defender of the CFPB and Wall Street regulation, is also on that committee, and could figure prominently into the debate as well, if he retains his congressional seat.

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5. Energy and environmental deregulation

Among most congressional Republicans, Obama’s actions to tackle climate change were anathema. With a man friendly to the fossil fuels industry and skeptical of climate science moving into the White House, Republicans are now eyeing a few areas where they might be able to roll back Obama’s environmental policies in Congress.

Since Trump’s election, the Obama administration has been working frantically to complete 11th hour regulations on climate and environmental protection. Under the Congressional Review Act, Congress has 60 days to disapprove a regulation from the executive branch — so the 115th Congress could get to work undoing those rules, if it acts swiftly.

That process would take some work, but it’s feasible. Potential targets of a GOP effort include a rule from the Department of the Interior to reduce methane emissions on public lands, or even the recent rule to block Twin Metals from its leases to copper and nickel deposits near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters.

Environmentalists worry that Congress could act to make big amendments to existing law like the Clean Air Act, such as excluding carbon dioxide as a regulated pollutant.

Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum, the ranking member on the Appropriations subcommittee that deals with interior issues, is one to watch on these issues.