Republicans, who suffered only glancing blows to their House and Senate majorities Tuesday, now threaten to not only undo much of that legislation but to also pursue their own dramatic remaking of the federal government’s role in American life and commerce.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who rose to prominence based on his plans to dramatically scale back federal spending, said Wednesday that Trump “earned a mandate” in his victory to enact years of conservative promises and that Republican lawmakers stood ready to help.
“This is the kind of unified Republican government that we set out to deliver,” he told reporters in his hometown of Janesville, Wis. “I think we are going to hit the ground running.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also called the election a rejection of Obama’s policies and said Republicans would work with Trump to overturn them — and to fill the Supreme Court vacancy they have kept open for eight months.
“We intend to work with him to change courses, to change the course of America,” he told reporters.
Among the first priorities next year is likely to be an effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. McConnell said that would be “pretty high on our agenda” and that he “would be shocked if we didn’t move forward and keep our commitment to the American people.”
Ryan told reporters that he also expects to work with Trump scale back regulations for coal mining, ranching and other industries. “It is not just the health care law that we can replace,” he said.
Tuesday’s congressional results left both leaders in a strong position to pass major legislation.
Republicans were on track to lose only a half-dozen seats in the House, a remarkable outcome after many leaders expected just weeks ago that double-digit losses could take a major chunk out of their 59-seat margin. Two California House races remained too close to call Wednesday morning, according to the Associated Press, but incumbents held leads in both races.
In the Senate, Republicans will keep their majority after defying widespread expectations that they would lose it to Democrats in an unfavorable year where they were faced with defending a dozen competitive seats. As of Wednesday morning, they had lost only one seat, in Illinois, though Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) trailed by 716 votes in her undecided race against Gov. Maggie Hassan. Also still to be resolved is a Dec. 10 Louisiana runoff, though Republican candidate John Kennedy is heavily favored in that race.
Senate Democrats will have the votes to filibuster legislation they strongly oppose, but Republicans will be able to use a simple-majority maneuver known as reconciliation to overturn the Affordable Care Act and to pass certain fiscal measures.
Senior congressional Republicans pledged their support for Trump’s emerging agenda at a valedictory press conference inside the Republican National Committee Wednesday.
“We all understand our role,” Sen. Roger Wicker (Miss.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told reporters.
“We’re on the same page,” Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, added.
Wicker predicted Republicans would get to work immediately on replacing the health-care law, swiftly confirm Trump’s first pick for the Supreme Court and work toward a bipartisan infrastructure package.
In the near term, GOP congressional leaders are already rethinking their plans for a must-pass year-end spending bill. What once was a question of trying to fend off Democrats’ demands for spending increases and policy concessions in the last days of a GOP-controlled Congress is now a discussion of how best to set the table for years of Republican-led fiscal policy.
Lawmakers had been preparing to negotiate a spending bill that would fund the government through next September, hewing to a 2015 spending agreement between then-Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and President Obama to increase spending by $30 billion this year. Now conservatives are expected to push anew for a mere stopgap, perhaps as short as three months, that gives the new Congress the opportunity to craft a long-term budget that makes good on long-standing GOP plans to slash domestic programs and could reduce the size of entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
A three-month spending bill could provide them with enough time to piece together a new GOP-only budget proposal that could satisfy a majority in both the House and the Senate. It is difficult to know how Trump will respond; he was nearly silent throughout the campaign when it came to details of his fiscal policy plans. Last year, Trump said that he would eventually insist on a balanced budget but did not elaborate.
“Right now, we’re so under, we’re so far under that you can’t go too quickly,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News. “But I would absolutely insist on it relatively soon.”
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chairman of an Appropriations subcommittee that controls $162 billion in domestic spending, said Wednesday that much will depend on whether Trump and Ryan want to wade immediately into fiscal matters or focus on other legislation — such as an Obamacare repeal or infrastructure bill — first. “Clearly, we’ll be in a stronger position after Jan. 4,” when the new Congress is sworn in, he said.
The most dramatic effect of Tuesday’s results is the possibility that Trump’s win might dramatically ease tensions within the Republican Party while heightening divides among Democrats, who now find themselves with a single lever of legislative power: the Senate filibuster.
While a few observers, such as Fox News host Sean Hannity, said Wednesday that Ryan could not remain as speaker given he perceived disloyalty earlier in the campaign — delaying his endorsement, for instance, after Trump secured the GOP nomination — there were no immediate signs of tensions between Ryan and Trump.
Ryan cited “fantastic conversations” he’d already had with Trump Wednesday. “I’m very excited about our ability to work together,” he said.
Cole said Ryan is “about to become Donald’s best friend in Congress.”
“He’s still the indispensable guy,” he said. “Whatever differences they had in the past, they each need one another to be successful. Trump needs somebody that can unite the Republican caucus and move things through. Obviously, Ryan needs someone who can sign something. We now have that.”
But Ryan still faces pressure from his party’s right flank, members who have bristled at the types of compromises it invariably takes to pass ambitious legislation.
Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), who unseated Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in 2014, said he wouldn’t rule out voting against Ryan for speaker until he commits to a list of policy goals for the year ahead.
“It all depends on what happens in the next few weeks,” he said. “It has to be more than pledges, it has to be a contract with America in writing so everyone knows that if we lie to you then you can hold us accountable.”
Some of Trump’s Republican critics were eager Wednesday to make peace with Trump after the long and messy campaign.
“On Tuesday, America demanded disruption,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a Trump critic who nonetheless said Wednesday he would “do everything in my power” to hold Trump to his pledges to overturn the Affordable Care Act, pursue congressional term limits and nominate conservative judges.
Another Trump critic, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) alighted on many of the same issues in a Wednesday statement congratulating Trump.
“We have wars to win, threats to be dealt with, and a stagnant economy which must be revived,” he said. “I believe there is consensus to be had on keeping trade free but fairer, rebuilding our military, restoring our standing in the world, reforming our tax code, repealing and replacing Obamacare with an alternative that empowers patients while reining in costs, and confirming conservative justices to the Supreme Court.”
And then there is Ryan, who despite his apparently agony over Trump’s nomination, never wavered from one rationale for his election: Only Trump would sign the conservative legislation he has spent two decades in public life promoting. Since June, Ryan has touted a framework for that legislation — a “Better Way” that touches on health care, national defense, federal regulations and more.
“I’m tired of divided government,” he said at a Sept. 29 event in Washington. “It doesn’t work very well.”
Paul Kane contributed to this report. Snell reported from Janesville, Wis.