President Trump huddled with congressional Republican leaders this weekend at Camp David, hoping to plot out the year ahead to give the GOP momentum as it heads into the winds of midterm elections.
For some, that means swinging for the fences with another attempt to fully replace the Affordable Care Act or a dramatic rewrite of entitlement laws. But any sober analysis will lead the group to conclude that, once Congress cleans up important must-pass items over the next eight weeks, it should be a relatively quiet legislative year.
That's because the political dynamics on Capitol Hill are set against some overly ambitious House Republicans and more reality-driven Republicans in both chambers. Given how aggressive Republicans were in 2017, failing on health care and narrowly passing a tax overhaul, this is not the time for big initiatives that could blow up in their faces.
Republicans notched one big agenda item, and veteran lawmakers believe now is the time to sell those tax cuts rather than launch another high-risk bid.
"Have to be careful, you know that," Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), first elected in 1986, said, summing up the 2018 agenda.
These longtime congressmen want to sell the Republican tax plan as part of a broad story about an improving economy, which includes the rising stock market and continued job growth.
"That's the big story, and I would say that we've set the stage for that with our regulatory reform and with our tax bill," Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said.
Cassidy, elected to the Senate two years ago after spending six years in the House, is temperamentally still more in line with the aggressive approach usually favored by House Republicans. He appreciates their urgency, including at times Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), in wanting to use the tax momentum to move straight into another big effort like overhauling welfare.
"Nothing is ever accomplished by a reasonable man," Cassidy said, ascribing the George Bernard Shaw saying to rabble rousers in the House. "So sometimes the House takes on something which may seem unreasonable, but the importance they give it, and the vitality they give it, gives it a chance."
That said, Cassidy knows that the Senate is going to be deadlocked by early spring, not a place where they will be cutting Medicare or reshaping food-stamp programs.
"That's probably not going to happen on the Senate side," he said.
There's no rule against passing major legislation in an election year. Some of the most important laws of the past 25 years — the tax overhaul of 1986, welfare overhaul of 1996, the ACA of 2010 — came in heated election years.
But those laws all had been worked on heavily in the preceding year, and in the case of the 1986 tax law, it began four years earlier. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have done next to nothing to prepare for anything as ambitious as rewriting welfare laws.
They would have to start from scratch, and that would require passing another budget resolution to give them fast-track power to move legislation on a simple majority in the Senate. And the chances of McConnell moving a budget through the Senate are very slim.
That was a difficult task in last year's chamber, where he had 52 votes and could afford to lose two while still approving a budget. Now, with Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) sworn into office, McConnell can lose just one vote, and he has close to a handful of GOP senators who would be leery of launching an ambitious rewrite of welfare laws.
In the past four election years, McConnell and his Democratic predecessor, Harry M. Reid (Nev.), have skipped trying to pass budgets, knowing that it is not usually a year for big new agenda items.
Yet Ryan, in an interview last month with a Wisconsin radio station, seemed to signal a new push to rein in Medicare and Medicaid. "Frankly, it's the health-care entitlements that are the big drivers of our debt, so we spend more time on the health-care entitlements — because that's really where the problem lies," he said.
Those words cheered on staunch conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus. It sounded as if Ryan was returning to his more ideological past as the budget chairman, when he crafted conservative documents that called for turning Medicare into a federal premium support system, with seniors buying private plans.
Such a bold plan might make sense, especially if Ryan were considering departing next year, and this would give him a big legacy capstone.
But Ryan, well into his third year as speaker, is now a more hardened political realist than those younger days. He knows there is little point in forcing his troops into another politically brutal legislative fight when the Senate has no intention of taking up arms.
Some smart Republicans read Ryan's comments closely and saw that he never fully committed to what his top legislative priorities are for 2018.
His "spend some time" frame sounded a lot more like a leader hoping to lay some groundwork in committees on an issue that Republicans might tackle down the road, should they retain their majorities next year.
This probably means that the focal point of this weekend's summit was averting the biggest land mines of items that need to pass in the next few weeks: a spending increase for defense and domestic agencies, a resolution for handling the roughly 1 million undocumented immigrants brought here as children, a disaster-relief bill and a couple health bills.
And each of these items are not protected by budget rules and therefore require bipartisan support to avoid a Democratic filibuster in the Senate. "They need Democratic votes to pass anything," Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters Thursday.
That's why the senior Republicans, those who have lived long stretches in the majority and minority, are warning everyone that they need to just get through these critical items and then campaign hard on cutting taxes.
"The big legislative achievement for this session will be the tax bill," Shelby said. "It was monumental, it was huge. It took a lot to get it done."