Congress limped into its spring break with little to demonstrate that much has changed from its previous dysfunctional gridlock — despite Republicans’ control of both Capitol Hill and the White House.
There were vows at the start of the year of a rapid-fire offense, but Republican leaders ended the first three months of 2017 with only one major accomplishment: the confirmation of Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Even that came with a high price — changing the Senate rules in such a way as to permanently decrease the influence of the minority.
Every big GOP initiative has hit a dead end or remains stuck at the starting line: Plans to rapidly repeal the 2010 Affordable Care Act have stalled amid House Republican infighting. Senate Republicans have largely rejected the centerpiece of an emerging overhaul of the tax code that is backed by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). And an infrastructure package, often touted by President Trump, has been relegated to the back of the line. Some Republicans are wondering whether they should move that up to try for a much-needed bipartisan win.
But grand ambitions for big changes with Trump in the White House and a GOP majority on Capitol Hill have quickly slammed into political reality: Republicans just can’t seem to get along, especially in the House. And Trump is a political neophyte who is unfamiliar with the legislative wrangling and compromises needed to score a big win in Washington.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was being realistic when he said this week that the bulk of the legislative agenda for the rest of this year would require Democratic support, given the tight margins in the Senate and GOP infighting in the House. Now out of session until late April, McConnell says he hopes cooler heads will soon prevail.
“I’m hoping that, after this two-week break, people are going to be in a more friendly mood,” he said in an interview Friday, noting that Democrats used fewer delay tactics on Gorsuch than some Cabinet selections early this year. “Most of the things that we’ll be doing the rest of the year, they’ll have to play a major role.”
Some Democrats are willing to cross the aisle, particularly several up for reelection that hail from states where Trump won by wide margins.
“We’d like to find a pathway forward,” Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) said after Friday’s Gorsuch confirmation vote. Yet Manchin found McConnell’s move to end 60-vote filibusters on Supreme Court nominees to be “un-American” and said he’s still waiting for real outreach on more legislation to bring together a bipartisan coalition.
“Well, we had the opportunity this time,” he said of the Supreme Court fight, “and it didn’t work too well.”
That effort didn’t get any easier late Thursday when Trump ordered a Tomahawk missile strike on Syrian airfield in response to a chemical weapon attack against Syrian rebels — a move that won bipartisan support but also renewed calls from both parties for Congress to debate and approve a new war resolution.
Earlier this decade, Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) made a basic calculation: A Congress that struggled to pay its debts and to keep the government lights on was never going to craft a bipartisan deal governing the prosecution of America’s wars.
So the Democratic Senate majority leader and the Republican House speaker, both of whom are now retired, stymied attempts at drawing up a new measure to guide the military in carrying out its expanding operations fighting terrorists.
McConnell adopted that same attitude after the strike in Syria, suggesting Trump had the constitutional latitude to act and that Republicans and Democrats were too far apart to agree on a new authorization for the use of military force.
“I can’t envision us agreeing on what an AUMF ought to be,” he said.
And lawmakers face more immediate problems. Within 72 hours of lawmakers’ return later this month is the April 28 deadline for funding the federal agencies to avert a government shutdown. McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) had a long meeting this week about that funding plan and not once did they discuss the bitter taste of the Gorsuch confirmation fight.
Left to their own devices, the two leaders appear ready to craft a deal. That’s because McConnell knows that, the more things change in the era of Trump, the more some things stay very much the same on Capitol Hill.
In the House, that means that there’s a bloc of several dozen conservatives who hate spending deals and will almost certainly vote against whatever Ryan puts before them, while in the Senate they will need at least eight Democrats to clear the 60-vote threshold to overcome a filibuster.
While Trump advisers and some House Republicans spent the past week haggling over an effort to revive the health-care overhaul, McConnell never once mentioned that legislation as a focus for the remainder of this year.
He noted that the only achievements in the first quarter of 2017 — Gorsuch, confirming Trump’s Cabinet and overturning more than a dozen agency regulations — happened because they faced 51-vote thresholds in the Senate. The only simple-majority arrow left in their quiver is the tax overhaul if Republicans can agree on a new, massive budget resolution.
But that decision is up in the air amid House-Senate battles over a proposed tax on goods coming across the U.S. border.
“Now we pivot into a period where, with the exception of whatever we’re going to do on tax reform, Democrats will be full partners,” McConnell said.
The window for finding Democratic collaborators is not permanently open. If Republicans keep pushing legislation with parliamentary rules allowing votes from just their side of the aisle, it requires them to resolve long-standing GOP feuds.
If Republicans keep running into dead ends, with no success, the impetus for Democrats to want to work with an unpopular Congress and unpopular president will fade.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) gave a one-word answer to what Trump should do next: “Infrastructure.”
“I’m disappointed they didn’t go with that first,” she added.
Back in January, at the Republican issues retreat in Philadelphia, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said an infrastructure package is something that might happen later, behind the health and tax packages. On Friday, Thune moved it higher on the priority list, given how the health legislation exposed lingering feuds within the GOP.
The key lesson on health care, he said, applies to the upcoming legislative battles as well. Republicans can no longer expect to barnstorm Washington with a speedy legislative assault.
“Better to do it right,” Thune said, “than to do it fast.”