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Clock is ticking on Republicans in Congress

Author: W. James Antle III, Washington Examiner - July 12, 2018 - Updated: July 26, 2018



Republicans are running out of time. Today they control all of Washington. Come January, they may be confined to the White House.

Washington Examiner photo illustration.

The loss of even just the House of Representatives after the midterm elections in November, the likeliest scenario, would put Democrats in charge of originating tax and spending bills as well as initiating the impeachment process. If the Senate falls to Democrats, it will stymie President Trump’s ability to fill executive and judicial branch vacancies.

Either chamber falling under Democratic control also means an uptick in congressional hearings about various scandals involving the Trump administration and its officials. Time devoted to Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election or potential violations of the emoluments clause forbidding receipt of gifts from foreign powers will mean less time spent on Trump’s legislative priorities. Additionally, lawmakers may augment or accelerate investigations that are already underway.

In Colorado, Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman is expected to face a tough election challenge from Democrat Jason Crow in the suburban-Denver 6th Congressional District. And some see GOP U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton as vulnerable in the sprawling 3rd District after three Democrats collectively outpolled him in the primary; Tipton will face Diane Mitsch Bush in November.

As the days tick down to the November election, GOP incumbents on Capitol Hill facing tough races will be increasingly reluctant to take hard votes. Note how little Democrats did with majorities much bigger than the ones the Republicans have now after passing Obamacare — which by itself arguably cost them the House. At-risk Republicans may decide controversial votes to cut corporate tax rates and (mostly unsuccessfully) scuttle Obamacare are enough for them to contend with on the campaign trail.

Still, Republicans need to pass a dozen appropriations bills with the fiscal year set to end Sept. 30. In the Senate, they will need some Democratic votes to do so because of the filibuster rules. The more Republican defections there are, the more Democrats will be required. Otherwise they risk a partial government shutdown just weeks out from the election.

Already the House has failed to advance an immigration bill after considering both a conservative proposal and the leadership-backed compromise alternative. Trump appeared equivocal in his support for both pieces of legislation. He also vacillated on whether they should take up the issue at all.

“Republicans should stop wasting their time on immigration until after we elect more Senators and Congressmen/women in November,” Trump tweeted in June. “Dems are just playing games, have no intention of doing anything to solve this decades old problem. We can pass great legislation after the Red Wave!”

He later deflected blame by tweeting he “never pushed the Republicans in the House to vote for the Immigration Bill.”

This month, Trump tweeted a different tune. “Congress must pass smart, fast and reasonable Immigration Laws now,” he wrote. “Law Enforcement at the Border is doing a great job, but the laws they are forced to work with are insane.”

Images of children being separated from their parents at the border gave Republicans a black eye. Trump signed an executive order ending the practice without abandoning his “zero-tolerance” policy on prosecuting illegal border-crossers, but many obstacles to implementing that order remain in the absence of congressional action.

All the while, opportunities to get funding to build the border wall — Trump’s most familiar campaign promise — keep passing by. Both sides balked at a deal to codify Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama-era program offering deportation relief to a subset of young illegal immigrants, in exchange for wall money.

Time is running out, which is perhaps why Trump pressed appropriators to increase the wall “down payment” to $5 billion from the $1.6 billion to $2 billion already planned. But this could itself heighten the chances of a shutdown since Senate Democrats will be resistant to the change.

“Infrastructure Week” has become a punchline. “We’re going to continue looking at ways to improve the nation’s infrastructure, but in terms of a specific piece of legislation, I’m not aware that that will happen by the end of the year,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters in May.

Then, in June, the Senate rejected a modest spending-cuts package advanced by the White House. It mostly targeted unused funds. The momentum generated by the tax cut bill has stalled. “Members are scared they’ll be targeted by the president’s tweets one day and the Resistance the next,” said a Hill Republican source.

This has left a great deal of unfinished business to be completed between now and November.

“I would hope they could at least solve the border separation issue and get a government funding bill passed,” said Jim Dornan, a Republican strategist. “And frankly, a bill that will rein in Trump’s ridiculous tariff fixation so that farmers and manufacturers don’t leave the party in droves in November would be a plus.”

Colorado’s U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, center, is among the Republican members of Congress seen as vulnerable in November. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

No more recess

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is keeping his troops — and vulnerable Democrats who would prefer to be at home campaigning — in Washington to crank out last-minute agenda items, having canceled most of the August recess. High-profile confirmation hearings to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt are a better bet now, since the GOP majority is a sure thing and the Democrats have no filibuster power to stop the nominations.

“Due to the historic obstruction by Senate Democrats of the president’s nominees, and the goal of passing appropriations bills prior to the end of the fiscal year, the August recess has been canceled. Senators should expect to remain in session in August to pass legislation, including appropriations bills, and to make additional progress on the president’s nominees,” McConnell said at the time.

The 51-49 Republican Senate majority could grow after November, given the number of red state Democrats running for reelection. But it could also be gone in a blue wave, making it nearly impossible to get reliable conservatives seated at either the Supreme Court or the EPA.

If Trump wants to replace any other officials whose positions require Senate confirmation — Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been embattled since recusing himself from the Russia investigation in favor of the deputy who ultimately appointed special counsel Robert Mueller — now would appear to be the time.

Democrats are already arguing that a Supreme Court confirmation vote should be held off until they may have more power. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., insists that McConnell’s decision to block then-President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland in a presidential election year means the same logic should apply to the midterm elections. Schumer also reportedly lobbied Trump to pick Garland himself.

The initial public opinion polling wasn’t kind to this Democratic argument. One poll by NBC News/SurveyMonkey found that 62 percent wanted an up-or-down vote on Trump’s nominee before this year’s elections while just 33 percent favored a delay. Perhaps as a residual effect of the Garland debate, 55 percent of Democrats wanted a pre-election vote.

“The second Anthony Kennedy retired from the Supreme Court, the (GOP) agenda on Capitol Hill became about one thing — confirming a new justice to the bench,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. “And given the slim majority Republicans have in the Senate, both parties will have a laser-like focus on the confirmation process, which will likely last through September. Beyond that, Republicans will be counting on President Trump to continue to deliver on his campaign promises, but that will likely be relegated to executive orders and the foreign policy front.”

That means both pushing through must-pass legislation under the wire as well as getting congressional Democrats on record on issues that will rally the GOP base ahead of November.

President Donald Trump speaks at a July 5 rally in Great Falls, Montana, on behalf of Republican candidates in Montana. Trump has been especially critical of Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana. (AP Photo/Jim Urquhart)

Conservative wish lists

“If I could wish for one thing, it would be requiring more work for welfare and food stamps and able-bodied recipients of Medicaid,” said Republican consultant Brad Todd. “The Democrats would likely vote it down and that way tell our coalition where they are.”

Keeping Republican voters and Trump supporters energized will be part of the challenge. “The conservative populist coalition is not as ideologically homogeneous as previous Republican coalitions. That one thing that unites it is a respect for work,” continued Todd.

“Farm bill,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist, rattling off things Trump and Congress could still get done. “Appropriations; maybe something on child separation; (confirmation of a) Supreme Court nominee; maybe a budget resolution through the House; the Water Resources Development Act.” The last item, dealing with waterway infrastructure, already passed the House by a vote of 408 to 2 last month.

Republicans had hoped the passage of the tax bill late last year, which also notched wins on the Obamacare individual insurance mandate and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, would augur more legislative progress this year. They’ve gotten some benefit from robust economic growth and falling unemployment, though polls don’t show voters are necessarily crediting the tax cut.

For the most part, however, the flurry of legislative activity that more optimistic conservatives anticipated for 2018 hasn’t materialized. There was a $1.3 trillion omnibus package instead of spending cuts. There has yet to be another serious crack at health care, as the issue has hurt GOP poll numbers recently.

The budget proposal House Republicans introduced last month would try to power spending cuts through the Senate using the reconciliation process, a procedural maneuver requiring a simple majority of votes that succeeded on taxes and failed on health care. The budget envisions Obamacare repeal, new Medicaid work requirements and transitioning Medicare to a premium support model. Such documents are seldom taken seriously, however, and frequently considered “dead on arrival.”

Others still hope for a productive lame-duck session after the mid-term elections that might include a last-ditch attempt at ramming through conservative policy initiatives. But Republicans might be deterred from doing that if the elections go badly and it would be superfluous if they go well. A split decision in which Republicans lost the House while adding seats in the Senate would complicate matters.

Working with Democrats

The reality is that the 2018 electoral landscape never lent itself to getting much done legislatively.

“It’s always best to have low expectations of legislative success during competitive midterms, and this year is no different,” Alex Conant, a former aide to Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, told the Washington Examiner this year.

Democrats did not believe they had much to gain politically from cutting deals with Trump, as their voters were opposed to and possibly demoralized by such compromises while the president refused to budge from some of his positions. Republicans were riven by ideological and factional divisions, especially in the closely split Senate but also in the House, where a lack of party unity predates Trump.

The White House faces another dilemma as the year winds down: To score a few additional wins before the election, they will need at least a small number of Democrats to cross over and support them in the Senate. The Democrats whose votes are most gettable — think Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana — are also the most beatable in November.

Should Trump go easy on them in the hope that they will, say, vote for his Supreme Court pick? Should he attack them anyway so that even Democrats who vote with him much of the time can be replaced by Republicans who will vote with him nearly all the time? Should he allow these Democrats to reap the electoral consequences of voting against conservative judges while running in red states?

These are questions that split the White House itself, to say nothing of D.C. Republicans more broadly. Trump slowly abandoned courting red-state Democrats on certain legislative items after the tax cut got through without them. He has been holding regular rallies in these Democrats’ home states, boosting their Republican challengers. But how hard he has hammered the incumbents or pushed their challengers has varied.

Trump has been especially critical of Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, after the withdrawal of former Department of Veterans Affairs nominee Ronny Jackson. But at a recent rally in Montana, warm-up speaker Donald Trump Jr. gave him a Trumpian nickname: “two-faced Tester.”

The president himself declined to use it, instead more conventionally tying Tester to Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Republicans don’t have many votes to spare in the Senate. The legislative filibuster still exists and they can’t use reconciliation for everything. Their top targets for defeat and cooperation are often the same people.

At the same time, as much as there remains to be accomplished this year, much of what happens in Washington before an election is symbolic. Trump and Republicans are trying to draw contrasts, if not always the same ones, with the Democrats and frame what is at stake in November.

For the party in power, those stakes include how much, if anything, they will be able to do over the next two years if “the Resistance” comes to town.

W. James Antle III, Washington Examiner