BALTIMORE — Republican congressional leaders gathered here to plan the year ahead have plenty to say about their “bold vision” and their “solutions-oriented approach.” But when it comes to laying out what actual legislation might get done in 2016, top leaders have considerably less to share.
“We weren’t sent here to do nothing, and we’re going to be looking for opportunities to make some progress for the American people this year,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters Thursday afternoon, after emerging from a series of morning policy sessions at the yearly party retreat.
But when describing the form that progress might take, McConnell and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) both focused on the task of passing a budget and spending bills, the basic blocking-and-tackling duties of the legislative branch — and a tacit admission that Capitol Hill will be more focused on election-year messaging than brass-tacks lawmaking.
“The challenge we have clearly in this particular government is, Barack Obama’s president,” Ryan said. “So the kind of agenda we’re talking about forming is, what can we do if we had a Republican as president? What does 2017 look like if the election goes the way we hope it goes?”
The most concrete legislative pledge either leader has made is to get a jump on the process of funding the government in a year where the legislative calendar is notably brief.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said a budget resolution could come to the House floor as soon as next month, which would be considerably earlier than the typical appropriations cycle. While spending levels for the next fiscal year have already been written into law under the budget deal negotiated last year between President Obama and then-Speaker John A. Boehner, many Republican lawmakers are pushing to pass a 2017 budget anyway in order to open up the possibility of using the powerful tool of reconciliation to dodge a Democratic filibuster in the Senate and put another potent messaging bill on Obama’s desk.
Republicans just finished using last year’s reconciliation bill to attempt to repeal Obama’s health care reform law and strip Planned Parenthood of federal health care funding. But what might the next reconciliation bill be used for? Tax relief? Welfare reform?
“No decisions have been made,” Scalise said. “Obviously we’re talking to our members right now.”
Other unanswered questions: Will Republicans finally make good on promises to put forth an alternative to Obamacare, after voting to repeal it? Ryan has pledged to develop a plan but has declined to commit to bringing it to a vote. And will they hold votes on a revised authorization to use military force against the Islamic State — something that Obama and lawmakers of both parties have asked for?
“Our members are making that decision this weekend,” Scalise said. “That’s part of what this retreat is about, talking about those ideas and seeing if we can coalesce.”
There are still a small handful of other policy areas where bipartisan action is possible, lawmakers said Thursday. They include criminal sentencing reform, mental health reform and Puerto Rican debt relief. But those are all complex issues surrounded by political landmines, and the discussion Thursday took on an unmistakably pessimistic tone.
“I think frequently the right answer when it comes to proposed legislation is no,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). “But it’s not the sufficient answer when you’re in the majority and you’re responsible to govern.”
The retreat comes after the two top Republican leaders on Capitol Hill had in recent comments staked out opposing perspectives on the year ahead: Ryan has been vocal in his desire to use the House as a policy shop to develop a core GOP agenda before a presidential candidate is formally nominated. McConnell, on the other hand, has made clear that he hopes to avoid contentious votes that could imperil the Senate’s vulnerable Republican incumbents.
But McConnell insisted Thursday that he was on the same page as Ryan in terms of “issue development,” and said he would not slow down the Senate to the degree it was in 2014, when Democratic leaders tightly controlled the flow of legislation ahead of the mid-term elections. That means that political messaging votes might be almost as frequent in the Senate as they will be in the House — particularly if both leaders make good on their pledges to process appropriations bills, which can be vehicles for contentious policy provisions.
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) inserted himself in that conversation from afar Thursday, calling on Senate Republicans to hold votes on the policies of presidential front-runner Donald Trump, including his proposal to temporarily bar Muslims from entering the country, and threatening to call up those votes himself if GOP leaders do not.
“These votes will give all Senators a chance to take a stand on the policy issues dominating the public debate — and Republicans a chance to stand with the frontrunner for their nomination,” Reid said.
McConnell responded Thursday by saying “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” and that Democrats “could expect amendments that they might not like related to the Sanders or Clinton campaign,” referring to Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
Scalise insisted that Republicans will be able to “walk and chew gum at the same time” and that there will be an effort to keep the government funded and set the agenda for the election year ahead.
“There’s going to be a lot to do in a short period of time because of the presidential conventions, because of the way the calendar is shortened,” he said. “We’re going to have a lot of late night votes, but that’s why we came here. We came here to get our work done.”