Congress is off to a slow start this year, and Republicans are starting to get nervous.
The Senate is tied up with delays in confirming President Donald Trump’s cabinet, the House is spending most of its time undoing regulations from the end of the previous president’s term, and a promised swift repeal of Obamacare is stalled.
“Is there some concern? Yes. Is it a panic stage? No,” said North Carolina Representative Mark Walker, chairman of the 170-member Republican Study Committee.
Less than a month into Barack Obama’s first term, he had already signed into law a measure extending health insurance to 4.1 million more U.S. children, a $787 billion economic stimulus package and legislation making it easier for employees to challenge wage discrimination. By contrast, Trump has signed legislation rolling back an Obama-era rule on energy companies’ disclosures, a law related to the Government Accountability Office’s ability to access certain records and a waiver allowing his defense secretary to be confirmed.
The slow start could end up delaying other Republican priorities, including an ambitious tax overhaul. Party leaders insist in public that they remain on target, but the legislative calendar is getting clogged enough to jeopardize significant chunks of the GOP’s agenda for the year.
Health and Taxes
Complicating matters, Republicans are getting ambushed almost every day by the news blitz from the Trump White House, particularly the revelations that intelligence agencies and the FBI are examining the extent of contacts Trump’s advisers had with Russia during and after the 2016 campaign. Calls for Congress to more exhaustively look into Russia’s involvement in the elections could further slow the policy agenda, lawmakers say.
“It is a distraction,” said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, adding that it takes the focus off other important issues like overhauling the tax code. “It takes away from other efforts. We have a job to do here, it’s important and it matters to people. There’s no question that all the activity around Russia right now is a distraction.”
House Republicans are planning to meet Thursday behind closed doors to try to regain some momentum on their plan to repeal Obamacare, but action still remains weeks away, or longer. These delays, in turn, push back the GOP’s tax plans.
Neither issue has progressed enough to be on schedule to wrap up by August recess, according to a person familiar with leadership’s thinking who isn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Even if Congress gets to the tax bill by the end of the year, it’s unlikely to have any impact in 2017, giving the changes little time to spur economic growth before the 2018 midterm election. While Republicans will be able to claim success in rolling back some regulations, party leaders privately recognize they need to pick up the pace on health care and taxes to get back on track, the person said.
That won’t be easy. Congress is taking a one-week recess next week.
When they get back, Republicans will deal with at least two dozen more measures to undo various Obama regulations under the 20-year-old Congressional Review Act, which will tie up floor action for a while. The House has so far passed 13 of these measures. They must act by early May on rules that include one that would blacklist federal contractors with labor-law violations and another boosting energy-efficiency standards to curb carbon emissions.
Republican leaders publicly insist that they remain on schedule and that rolling back regulations will be a significant achievement.
“Congressional Republicans and President Trump outlined a 200-day agenda and we’ve hit every benchmark yet, including passing a budget and passing significant regulatory relief,” AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, said in a statement. “We are now in the midst of moving Obamacare repeal and replace and then will move to tax reform, just as our timeline spelled out.”
The Senate, meanwhile, will still be processing Trump’s cabinet picks, as Democrats use procedural obstacles to slow down their approval.
“The climate right now in the Senate is as toxic as I’ve ever seen it,” Senate Banking Chairman Mike Crapo said at a Washington conference Wednesday. Confirming Trump’s appointees has been “a very slow process, much more slow than we have seen before, and that impacts everything else.”
SOURCE: Laura Litvan and Billy House