Republicans are desperate for a big win as the party’s inability to score a major victory by the August recess marks one of the few times in four decades a new president has failed to use his honeymoon period to achieve a huge legislative triumph.
While there’s plenty of talk at the White House and on Capitol Hill about ways to overhaul the tax code and immigration, as well as fund more bridge and road projects, Republicans are far from the even the minimum consensus needed to push anything through this bitterly divided Congress.
Talk of working together is only that, said Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho.
“Everybody says that, nobody does that,” he told McClatchy. “Because of the animosity, vitriol, the partisanship. You cannot judge what’s going on here today by anything that’s happened in the past because of the level of animosity.”
Repealing and replacing Obamacare was supposed to be the major achievement of President Donald Trump’s first months. Now that that effort has collapsed, there’s nothing obvious for Republicans to rally around.
What’s particularly embarrassing for Republicans is that the party controls both the White House and Congress for the first time in 10 years. And the GOP has recent history on its side.
President Barack Obama got a major economic stimulus plan through in his first month. Presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan won approval of big tax cuts in their first months in office, and President Bill Clinton signed a major deficit reduction package into law seven months after taking office.
Failing to pass a major health overhaul – the effort collapsed Monday night when two more GOP senators said they would oppose the latest effort – disrupted the Republican master plan to start with health care and use the momentum to rewrite the tax code and then address infrastructure or immigration.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., defended the Senate’s work Tuesday, citing the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and other matters, but could not list any huge accomplishment.
“We have 14 repealed regulations and we’re only six months into it,” McConnell said. “The last time I looked, Congress goes on for two years. We'll be moving on to comprehensive tax reform, to infrastructure. There is much work left to be done for the American people and we're ready to tackle it.”
Changing the tax code is doable, but is not expected to be done quickly. The 1986 tax revisions took about two years. Boosting infrastructure spending not only requires careful planning and details, but funding. While the Trump administration keeps promising an effort, it has yet to unveil any formal plan.
White House officials emphasized that health care is not dead. They pointed out how quickly the House returned to the negotiating table this spring after scrapping a vote and thinking the issue was dead.
“It’s definitely not over,” said a White House official.
Trump said Congress should "start from a clean slate" on a new health care plan. McConnell said members could still come back to vote on repealing the Affordable Care Act, with a two-year delay, perhaps as soon as this week.
But it was clear that the administration and Congress are looking for smaller accomplishments in the near term. While the administration will still tout tax code changes and health care, the White House official said the American people will also see progress on piecemeal items such as regulatory reform.
“There is a long game and short game and we’re playing both of them,” said the official. “Moving major pieces of legislation doesn’t happen overnight.”
The tax code may be the best chance for Trump to score a major legislative win this year, but that measure would require about $200 billion worth of cuts to benefit programs and other spending, which Democrats – and many moderate Republicans – are unlikely to support.
Immigration, while it did win a strong bipartisan Senate consensus four years ago, has become so politically flammable that few want to undertake a comprehensive effort.
Efforts to pass an overhaul remain stuck. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a major player in the 2013 effort, thought that Congress and the White House could agree on a small measure that would shield 800,000 young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children from deportation. It could paired with a border security measure.
“I think the kids have a very powerful story to tell and this may be an area where both parties can come together,” Graham said.
But the White House has, so far, shown little interest in the plan, which is yet to be introduced. Immigration enforcement must come first, said a White House official.