In January, liberals settled on “the dog that caught the mail truck” as the cliché to describe the situation Republicans found themselves in. Here they were, in control of the presidency and both houses of Congress—but they had not anticipated having so much power and were not entirely sure what to do with it. The events of the past week or so have only buttressed this impression.
The Republicans have little room to disagree. They have just 52 votes in the Senate—barely a majority and well below the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster—and a House majority small enough that it disappears without the strongly conservative Freedom Caucus. Yet they are far from unified on some of the most important parts of their agenda.
We’re just two months into a two-year Congress, so it’s far too early for sweeping predictions about what can and cannot be accomplished. But some things are for sure. One, the GOP is about to waste a lot of time on intra-party squabbles that could have been hashed out a year or two ago, when Republicans controlled Congress but not the White House. Two, they won’t have much success unless they ultimately stick together, from the moderate to the conservative wing of the party. And three, if these early weeks are any indication, Trump won’t be doing congressional Republicans too many favors when it comes to resolving all this bickering.
Obamacare is a case in point. Last week, House Republicans prepared to launch a plan for dismantling the law that involves coercing, rather than soliciting, the support of the dissenting conservative wing.
It’s a variant of the “repeal-and-delay” tactic the GOP has been debating for more than a month. First, they will pass a bill through the filibuster-proof “budget reconciliation” process that dismantles Obamacare’s funding and perhaps establishes some aspects of a new system. Then, because the reconciliation process cannot be used for matters that don’t relate to the budget, they’ll tackle a series of other bills dealing with Obamacare’s slew of other health-care regulations. These bills can be filibustered, so they’ll need bipartisan support to hit 60 votes.
This would be a slog even if Republicans voted in unison. Yet Republicans can’t agree on the most basic elements of how a replacement should work. Rep. Paul Ryan and his allies would use refundable tax credits to ensure that everyone can afford coverage, which they see as necessary to preserve Obamacare’s success in reducing the uninsured rate. They have a point: quite arguably, the chance to kill the law entirely ended with Obama’s reelection in 2012, before the exchanges went online. Now too many people rely on it.
The conservative wing of the party rejects this approach, however, because they don’t want to acquiesce in the creation of a new entitlement. A rival bill from Sen. Rand Paul would provide only tax deductions, which have little value to the millions of Americans with no or minimal tax liability. Ryan and the conservatives also disagree about how to handle the Medicaid expansion, which is where most of Obamacare’s coverage gains come from.
Tensions came to a head last week. Paul accused Ryan and his allies of being overly secretive about the content of their “Obamacare Lite” bill (which was sequestered in a dedicated “reading room” in an attempt to prevent the text from leaking) and led a mock “search” for it through the House side of the Capitol. Meanwhile Sen. Ted Cruz, well-known for going against the grain, published a piece in Politico laying out the “right way” to repeal Obamacare. His approach would entail trying to convince the Senate parliamentarian that Obamacare’s insurance regulations are budget-related and thus vulnerable to repeal through the reconciliation process—and then overriding the parliamentarian if she disagreed. This way, Republicans could do whatever they wanted with no Democratic support. Cruz’s ideal bill would stick to the reforms Republicans all agree on, which obviously do not include refundable tax credits. In a similar vein, other conservatives suggested killing the filibuster entirely through the “nuclear option.”
The GOP leadership’s response is to ram its bill through and dare the conservatives to oppose what may be their only chance to scale back Obamacare. Democrats are salivating over the possibility. A markup from the House Energy and Commerce Committee is likely to happen this week.
The moderate wing of the party also poses a problem, especially in the Senate. The moderates think the “repeal and delay” tactic is too risky and prefer an approach that could earn some Democratic buy-in. Two of them have proposed sending the issue back to the states, allowing them to keep Obamacare, use the money for a more free-market approach, or opt out of federal funding entirely. Moderates may also oppose any effort to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood.
So, yes: as liberals have been saying ad infinitum, it sure would have been easier if Republicans had gotten on the same page before this year, while they were voting dozens of times to repeal or otherwise attack Obamacare and even went through the trouble of landing a repeal bill on President Obama’s desk.
It also doesn’t help that Trump has done so little to signal what side he’s on. In his speech last week he mentioned “tax credits”—but as conservative critics quickly pointed out, he didn’t specify whether those credits should be refundable, meaning people could get them as “refunds” even if they didn’t pay taxes. And just to add to the confusion, Trump promised to announce his own “very special” health-care plan this month, but Politico reports that he may just endorse Ryan’s plan. (“Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” he also said in discussing the plan that may or may not exist.)
A similar process is playing out with tax reform. There too Paul Ryan has a plan, but not a plan with the full backing of his party or an endorsement from Trump. Setting aside the wisdom of the plan’s overall approach—it would increase the debt even further by cutting taxes—the agenda hinges on a complicated provision known as “border adjustment,” without which it would lose an extra trillion dollars in revenue over a decade. (I explained the details of this policy here, but the gist is that the corporate tax would apply only to revenue from goods consumed domestically—meaning imports would be taxed but exports would not.) If Republicans in Congress can’t unite around border adjustment, which would involve defying major business interests and risking the wrath of the World Trade Organization, it’s back to the drawing board.
Here as well we have some cryptic comments from Trump’s speech. He seemed to adopt some of the rhetoric Republicans have used to promote border adjustment—but such rhetoric could also apply to tariffs, an entirely different policy, and Trump has made negative comments about border adjustment in the past.
Bizarrely, Trump’s mixed signals have extended even to immigration, an issue where his position was loud and clear during the campaign, in a series of executive orders starting in late January, and in his speech last week. Yet before that speech he told reporters he was interested in a law passed with “compromise on both sides.” An anonymous White House source let it slip that this could include legal status for non-criminal illegal immigrants. Everyone knows a compromise will be needed eventually, but why start the dealmaking process by putting amnesty on the table?
Another looming fight, if a more routine one, involves the annual budget. Trump’s proposal, which he is required to submit to Congress by law, involves hikes to defense spending and dramatic cuts to much of the rest of the federal government. Sen. Lindsey Graham has promised that the budget is “dead on arrival”; Democrats are even less enthusiastic. Presidents always see their budgets radically changed in Congress, and there is talk that we could end up running on the previous budget, extended through “continuing resolutions,” until the end of the fiscal year if Congress can’t pull something together that Trump will sign.
To be sure, this is hardly the first time DC has reeked of dysfunction. Only time will tell if Republicans can get it together like the Democrats did eight years ago to pass Obamacare. But the early signs are not encouraging, and that dog-that-caught-the-mail-truck cliché seems more apt by the day.
Robert VerBruggen is managing editor of The American Conservative.