PHILADELPHIA — Deadlines on Capitol Hill can be deadly, particularly those artificially set for political appearances. So Republicans made a smart early decision by giving up on the traditional marker of measuring a new president’s success in the first 100 days, an outdated calculation dating back to the Great Depression.
The question is whether they were smart enough.
The Republican retreat here this week included a presentation by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) titled the “Two Hundred Day Plan,” outlining how the Republicans want to overhaul the health-care industry and the nation’s tax code.
On Thursday morning, Ryan acknowledged that it was really more like a one-year plan, with a goal of getting as much as possible done by the time Congress breaks in early August for the traditional five-week recess, then coming back in the fall to finish off what would become one of the most ambitious first-year agendas of recent new presidential terms.
By late Thursday, even the most rabble-rousing lawmakers seemed to understand the weight of how many major issues Republicans were trying to bite off in one swoop. Some suggested that the goal should be simply to move quickly without hard and fast deadlines — other than those already set by law.
“Think about all the things that are coming. In a typical year, you have one or two kind of sort of big moments,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus, which in the past two years frequently caused headaches by bucking party leaders.
Jordan listed seven major moments ahead, from an April deadline to fund federal agencies to two budget resolutions designed to revamp health-care and tax laws. He finished counting at seven and made it clear that he wouldn’t blame leadership if a few things went beyond the first 200 days.
“In a typical year, you get one or two, maybe three. This year you’ve got seven, so those are seven big moments,” Jordan added.
That estimate did not include the Senate’s consideration of Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, expected to come next week amid lingering Democratic bitterness that McConnell never allowed consideration of former president Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, over Obama’s last 10 months in office.
That math left Ryan at times presenting a rosy portrait of his ambitions for the year — and then alternately trying to dial back expectations.
“Our goal is by the end of 2017, we have made good on so many of the promises that we made to the people and the policies that we ran on,” Ryan told reporters at a media briefing with McConnell at his side.
But as the retreat went on, most lawmakers seemed to grasp another possibility: that they are playing with live ammunition this time around — that these policy proposals might become law now that President Trump is in office, and they might blow up in the GOP’s lap if they don’t.
Democrats went through this in 2009, after the 2008 elections delivered massive majorities in the House and Senate and placed Obama in the White House. The lesson there is that fast movement is better for winning passage of key initiatives — but once the other side knows your deadline, they will do everything possible to block, delay and create a sense of political malaise with every missed deadline.
Democrats managed those 2009 expectations poorly, ending up in a long legislative quagmire that did not result in the Affordable Care Act’s passage until 15 months into Obama’s first term. The Dodd-Frank bill regulating Wall Street was not enacted until the summer of 2010.
At that point, public sentiment had turned against Obama and congressional Democrats for not delivering quickly enough. The 2010 midterm elections delivered a crippling blow: the loss of the House majority and governor’s mansions and state legislatures across the country.
Leading up to that moment, McConnell played the intentional role of slowing every piece of legislation he could with a powerful tool: the expansive rights afforded the minority party in the Senate’s rules.
McConnell watched as then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) set an initial deadline for her chamber’s version of the Affordable Care Act by the time of the 2009 August recess. It is the same initial deadline that Ryan and McConnell seemed to set this week for approving multiple pieces of equally significant legislation.
But the negotiations bogged down in the House, and only their committees approved versions of the health law. In August 2009 the conservative tea party movement had its moment, flooding town halls and screaming at lawmakers about the proposed law. Momentum stalled, the House didn’t pass its bill until November 2009 and then McConnell used every stalling tactic possible, forcing Democrats to pass their version of the bill on Christmas Eve.
Just a few weeks into 2017, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) is showing signs of reading from McConnell’s old playbook. Even non-controversial nominees for Trump’s Cabinet posts are facing drawn-out debate and then full roll-call votes.
It’s easy to see Schumer trying to jam up the Senate — he has 48 members in his caucus, much more leverage than McConnell had eight years ago with just 40 and 41 senators in his caucus.
Ryan and McConnell seem to be trying to thread the needle, hoping to find momentum coming out of Philadelphia but not promising results too quickly.
“We don’t want to set arbitrary deadlines on things. We want to get things right. We want to get them done the right way. We want to move quickly, but we want to get things right,” Ryan told reporters.
McConnell said, “The speaker understands the challenges of getting things through the Senate. That’s been true for 240 years. But we’re aware of those challenges and we think we can move forward.”
One thing is certain: time will tell.