Trump. Russia. James Comey. The FBI. Tweets.
Got your attention? That’s the problem for Republicans: despite being in a position to make significant progress toward making their policy dreams a reality, the cloud of scandal hanging over Donald Trump’s White House is sapping the GOP’s legislative energy and momentum.
It was supposed to be much different: for the first time in over a decade, Republicans have majorities in the House and Senate and one of their own in the White House. After the 2016 election, congressional leaders pledged they’d move quickly on longtime promises, like overhauling the tax code and repealing Obamacare; Trump committed to backing those and pushing through policies of his own, like infrastructure spending and the border wall.
Though the Senate has approved a new Supreme Court justice and the House passed a bill to repeal Obamacare, Republicans’ lofty rhetoric on their governing plans — and the high expectations they welcomed — have frequently failed to match reality.
Trump has much to do with that: his administration has been dogged with missteps and delays, not to mention the looming investigation, now headed by a special prosecutor, of the Trump camp’s ties with Russia.
Making things more complicated, Congress faces critical deadlines both before and after their five-week August recess, to raise the U.S. debt limit and fund the government for the new fiscal year, both of which promise high-stakes dealmaking that could derail the rest of the GOP legislative agenda.
With just about a month’s worth of legislative days until Congress heads home for the recess, Republicans are worrying that time is running out for them not only to tackle their wish list items, but to perform basic tasks like funding the federal government. Here’s what Congress has to get done, what it wants to get done, and how could it all fall apart.
Must-do items on the list
If Congress’ most fundamental task is keeping the lights on in the federal government, we’re about to find out how hard it is to screw in a lightbulb in the age of Trump.
Congress did approve a short-term resolution to fund the government in April, but it runs out at the start of the next fiscal year, in October. Right now, Capitol Hill should be working quickly on next year’s spending process, which requires each chamber’s 12 Appropriations subcommittees to approve spending legislation to send to their chamber’s floor to be voted on by all members.
That process, known as regular order, hasn’t happened by the books since 1994. Lately, Congress has preferred to pass so-called omnibus spending bills, which puts several of the subcommittees’ bills together for a single vote.
But even by recent standards, this year’s appropriations process is moving at a glacial pace. It began with the White House: presidential budget requests are meant to be sent to Congress by the first week of February, and Trump did not send his full budget to Congress until late May.
By June or July, most Appropriations subcommittees have typically advanced the spending bills they are responsible for, or at least drafted them. So far, no spending bill has cleared any of the subcommittees, making this the most delayed appropriations process in seven years according to Roll Call columnist David Hawkings. (This is despite GOP leadership scheduling for 2017 the most legislative days in a calendar year since 2010.)
Lawmakers will need to work quickly to make up for lost time — after they return from the August recess, there are only 12 scheduled working days until the new fiscal year.
In a statement, 2nd District GOP Rep. Jason Lewis said that House Republicans are “committed to regular order; that sometimes means it takes longer than we would like to tackle each individual appropriations bill — especially when there’s obstructionism from Senate Democrats and when we have priorities like tax reform and health care reform to tackle at the same time.”
Fourth District Rep. Betty McCollum, the top Democrat on the Appropriations sub-panel for Interior and environment spending, says Republicans have themselves to blame.
In a statement, McCollum argued that critical appropriations are due soon but, “Trump and House Republicans have already gummed up the process with unprecedented delays.” Her subcommittee has not yet finished testimony for its spending bill; her aides had a hard time recalling a slower process in McCollum’s decade-long tenure on the committee.
“It seems likely they will follow their typical playbook and procrastinate until a deadline or crisis forces actual decision making.” she said.
Making matters worse, Congress has another crisis waiting in the wings: raising the so-called debt ceiling, which extends Uncle Sam’s authority to continue borrowing money. Failing to do so would make the U.S. default on its debt — something it has never done. This week, the White House said that Congress should vote to raise the debt limit before the five-week August recess, giving them a relatively brief window of time to work out a deal.
Why that could prove tricky is that many congressional Republicans are philosophically opposed to raising the debt limit without passing measures to tackle the federal deficit, including some of Trump’s own advisers, like budget chief Mick Mulvaney.
Rep. Lewis, a libertarian-minded budget hawk, said the U.S. needs to meet its obligations. “We have the resources to service our debt,” he said, “we don’t have the resources to do so and continue spending the way we have.”
Citing the $20 trillion debt, Lewis said “a vote to raise the debt ceiling needs to have real implications for these tough spending decisions.”
Observers aren’t sure how this will shake out, but a limited amount of time to accomplish these high-stakes tasks means that brinksmanship is certain. Democratic leadership believes that the GOP’s fractious internal politics means they will need their help to avert a shutdown and/or a default on the debt.
The April spending bill was supported by a majority of Democrats and opposed by a majority of Republicans; if a similar dynamic persists, Democrats could push for concessions from Republicans in exchange for their votes on a crucial piece of legislation.
Debt-limit brinksmanship can be politically toxic, and in the past Democrats have insisted on “clean” debt-limit raises, meaning that no policy riders — or “poison pills” — are attached. But Democrats believe they have some fresh leverage: Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said that Democrats won’t bow to pressure to vote for a debt limit increase that would allow the GOP to cut taxes for the wealthy.
The campaign promises
Simply averting a government shutdown and a default on the U.S. debt are tasks that will take up much of Congress’ time and energy. Then there’s the stuff that Trump and congressional Republicans promised they’d swiftly do when in power: namely, replace Obamacare and pass a sweeping tax overhaul.
Their prospects on those two items are mixed, at best. Republicans point to their Obamacare alternative, the American Health Care Act, which passed the House in April, as a significant sign of progress. After being pulled shortly before a scheduled vote in March, the AHCA later won enough GOP support to advance by a margin of four votes.
Though that achievement was celebrated with a grand ceremony at the White House Rose Garden, the AHCA faces a daunting path in the Senate. Under the legislative process of budget reconciliation, the bill requires just 51 senators to vote yea. But with unified Democratic opposition, the GOP can only afford to lose two of their own, and far more than two Republican senators have voiced concern with the AHCA.
Moderate and conservative Republicans alike have not had good things to say about the House bill, while those who represent states who benefited from the Medicaid expansion do not seem excited to back a bill that would significantly cut Medicaid. Sen. Richard Burr, a reliable Republican from North Carolina, called the House’s AHCA “dead on arrival” in the Senate.
Senate Republicans have convened a working group to craft their own version of the AHCA, but time is short: some lawmakers have said that the longer the bill sits, the less likely it is to survive. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham quipped that, unlike a fine wine, the AHCA does not get better with age. (He also said it is unlikely to pass this year.)
With that in mind, GOP leadership reportedly wants to barrel ahead with a vote on the AHCA before lawmakers depart in August. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly wants to hold a vote regardless of whether or not there were enough votes to secure the bill’s passage. (HuffPost reports they are making progress but have major work to do to keep the caucus in line.)
Lewis said that the $119 billion in deficit savings in the AHCA, as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office, are needed to tackle tax reform and other priorities, and called on his Senate colleagues to “match the pace that the House has set.”
If it fails, Congress would move on to other things — an overhaul of the tax code is next on the list. Though the president boasted that his tax plan is proceeding ahead of schedule, no actual legislation has been introduced in Congress.
Loyal Republicans, like 3rd District Rep. Erik Paulsen, who serves on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, have sounded optimistic all year that Congress will advance a major tax package. But major details still need to be worked out, as Trump and congressional Republicans are at odds over certain key policy details. It will be difficult: Congress has not passed a comprehensive tax bill since 1986.
In the eyes of important interest groups, though, prospects aren’t good. Politico reported that the consensus on Wall Street and in corporate America is that tax reform has flat-lined and that could perhaps happen next year.
Beyond health care and taxes, the president campaigned on promises to change the U.S. immigration system and revitalize the country’s roads, bridges, highways, and airports. He will need help from Congress to make progress in those areas, but there’s been hardly any talk, much less action, on them.
Capitol Hill has largely been dead-silent on immigration issues; for Trump’s top immigration policy, the border wall, to move forward, he will need the cooperation of congressional appropriators. Though April’s omnibus spending bill increased funding for border security by $1.5 billion, none of those funds can go to constructing any new sections of a wall with Mexico.
Another Trump priority, tightening scrutiny of those coming into the U.S. from overseas, has also stalled. Two versions of his ban on travel from a group of Muslim-majority countries has been stymied in federal court; Congress has not taken any specific actions on that, or on refugee resettlement issues.
For infrastructure, the details of a much-hyped $1 trillion spending package are scant; Trump held a ceremony on infrastructure on Monday in which he signed important-looking policy documents — no legislation, but a letter to Congress detailing his priorities on a niche topic, privatization of the U.S. air traffic control system.
The administration is behind on other tasks that require congressional help, too. Just 11 ambassadors have been confirmed so far, while over 170 ambassadorships sit vacant, even those to top allies like Canada and the United Kingdom. Beyond that, hundreds of posts around the federal government, including key Pentagon posts, are unfilled.
Trump and the GOP have blamed “obstructionist” Democrats for the delays, and while Senate Democrats have employed procedure to gum up the works, the White House has also failed to submit nominations for many posts. It all means that the chamber has held barely any votes on actual legislation so far.
Democrats say the pace of legislative business is entirely up to the GOP. “Even with a huge majority,” Rep. McCollum said, “Congressional Republicans are once again demonstrating they are incapable of governing responsibly.”
The ruling party in D.C. now faces a shrinking window to get those things done, high expectations to succeed at that task, and total uncertainty as to how independent investigations into the White House’s activity will develop.