Struggling to resolve differences over a GOP health care overhaul bill in the Senate, Republicans in the Congress left Washington, D.C. for a July Fourth break with unresolved questions about a series of major items on President Donald Trump’s agenda, as legislative work in Congress during the month of June brought the White House some minor successes, but Republicans are still searching for workable plans to advance tax cuts, the budget and much more.
Here’s a run down on where things stand on Capitol Hill:
1. Health care remains the bottleneck for the Trump Agenda. It was eight weeks ago that jubilant Republicans from the House gathered with President Trump in the White House Rose Garden to celebrate the narrow approval of a GOP health care bill. “We’re going to get this passed through the Senate,” the President said – but so far, that hasn’t happened, as GOP Senators were forced this week to delay a vote on a revised health bill until mid-July at the earliest. It may be that Republicans will be able to figure out the magic formula in coming weeks, but as of now, the central campaign vow from Mr. Trump and GOP lawmakers remains in limbo in the Congress – and until that’s finished, other big ticket items remain on hold as well.
2. Trump suggests approving only a health repeal bill. President Trump on Friday morning urged the Senate to approve a bill that repeals the Obama health law, and then have the Senate worry about the details later of a new health care system. This has been talked about before by Republicans, but has gone nowhere, because you would need 60 votes for such a move, in overcome a Senate filibuster. The idea was quickly seconded by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE). But it has little chance of succeeding, without the support of Democrats.
3. Tax cuts aren’t going anywhere fast either. Earlier this year, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin vowed to get a tax reform package through the Congress before August. Few people on Capitol Hill believed that prediction, and not only have no votes occurred in the House and Senate, but no tax bill has been unveiled by either the White House or Republicans in the Congress. The plan right now is to roll out a proposal after Labor Day. Republican leaders still want to use the expedited process of “budget reconciliation” for tax cuts – which would avoid a filibuster in the Senate – but the problem with that is the GOP hasn’t even taken the first step to approve a budget resolution for 2018. Tweets like this from the President are simply not accurate when it comes to the progress in Congress on tax legislation.
4. No House deal yet on a budget resolution. GOP leaders in the House had planned to get a 2018 budget blueprint through the House Budget Committee this week, but differences among Republicans over how to structure that, what level of spending cuts to approve, and what spending reforms should be embraced, led to a delay in the vote. The ‘budget resolution’ is supposed to be approved in Congress by April 15 of each year – we are now about to turn the calendar to July. If Republicans really want to use the 2018 budget reconciliation process for tax reform, they will have to reach a deal on the budget resolution in July – or it will further delay big issues like tax reform and infrastructure. Failure to pass a budget resolution so far is a big deal for Republicans, who remain at odds over the details, a very similar story to health care.
5. Without a budget resolution, no action on 2018 spending bills. Not only is the budget resolution several months behind schedule, but the individual bills that fund the federal government are slow out of the gate as well, as it’s almost assured that the Congress will not get its budget work done on time by the end of September, (the end of the fiscal year). Some GOP lawmakers have even floated the idea of jamming everything together into one big bill in July – rather than waiting until the fall, or even right before Christmas. The biggest problem right now is that no one is quite sure how much money will be spent on the Pentagon and non-defense spending, making it difficult to put together a dozen appropriations bills. This was not what Republican leaders had drawn up on the white board after winning the White House last November. They were going to get their work done, and done on time.
6. The lack of action comes amid rising deficit estimates. President Trump and Republicans in Congress have talked a lot about cutting the budget and reining in the deficit, but as mentioned above, nothing has really been done on that front. In the meantime, a still unexplained drop in tax revenues coming in to Uncle Sam has helped push estimates for this year’s deficit much higher. The Congressional Budget Office on Thursday said the 2017 deficit would be 24 percent higher than their estimate from back in January, going up $134 billion to an estimated $693 billion deficit. Why? The CBO mainly blames, “surprisingly weak tax collections.” “One reason for the sharp rise in the deficit in 2017 is the slow growth in revenue collections through May and the slow growth expected for the rest of the year,” the CBO wrote in a new report. That is not good news for the Trump Administration.
7. One prime example of how bipartisanship can still work. Something that did get done in the month of June was a bill that was sent to the President’s desk on reform at the Veterans Affairs Department, as it had very strong support in both parties. The plan gives the VA more legal leeway to fire underperforming employees, all in an effort to improve health care services for veterans. It’s a reminder that while Republicans are stuck on health care, taxes, infrastructure and more right now, there are ways to get things done with a buy-in from both political parties. The White House though complained that it didn’t get enough attention. “Things like the success at the VA barely get covered,” said spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
8. GOP, White House pleased with moves on immigration. From a pair of bills passed on Thursday in the House that crack down on illegal immigrants, to the legal green light for the Trump travel order and tougher measures overall at the southern border with Mexico, Republicans are very pleased with the direction of the Trump Administration on immigration. The House approved one plan to toughen penalties against illegal immigrants who are deported, and then re-enter the U.S. illegally. Another bill would withhold federal law enforcement grant money from local governments that refuse to cooperate with the feds on detaining illegal immigrants. While those bills face an uphill fight in the Senate, the GOP clearly feels like this is an issue that plays well with Trump voters all across the country.
9. Congress will spend most of the next two months away from D.C. Labor Day is just over nine weeks away. The legislative work schedule for the House has members in session for 13 days – three weeks in July, and then the Congress is off for a five week break into September. That means GOP leaders will have to choose wisely on what to get done in July. Some Republicans are urging the leadership to cancel the August Recess, but that seems like a long shot right now – unless a certain occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue started weighing in on the need for Congress to stay at work during their scheduled vacation time away from the humidity of the D.C. swamp. I know lots of people say they like it when Congress is out of session – but as I always counter, you can’t pass bills to reform things if you’re not at work on Capitol Hill.