Whittling of grand ambitions reflect pressure of midterm
BY LINDSEY MCPHERSON
WASHINGTON – The 2018 Republican legislative agenda is on a diet.
As House and Senate GOP lawmakers huddled at a West Virginia resort Jan. 31-Feb. 2 for their annual retreat, they discussed a handful of legislative items they would like to tackle this year, including defense, infrastructure, workforce development and the budget process.
It was a whittled-down version of what many Republicans had originally envisioned, reflecting the pressures of a midterm election year and its typically unfavorable climate for major legislative achievements.
The 2018 legislative calendar is tight, given that floor time in the coming weeks, and possibly months, will be eaten up by must-pass government spending and immigration bills, as well as scheduled recesses, including a long October break for campaigning.
But intraparty dynamics are also at play.
Off the table
After passing a landmark tax bill last December – the GOP’s biggest 2017 accomplishment – Republicans got a confidence boost and had high hopes for the new year.
They talked of taking another shot at repealing and replacing the 2010 health care law, overhauling welfare programs and cutting mandatory spending.
Many of those grand ambitions originated in the House Republican Conference.
While some senators were thinking similarly big – especially when it came to redeeming themselves on health care after the 2017 effort stalled in their chamber – Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quickly tamped down expectations, saying at the end of the year that both health care repeal and entitlement changes were likely off the table.
More welfare talk
Despite McConnell’s comments, House Republicans continued their push.
Speaker Paul D. Ryan never stopped talking about tackling welfare programs as a way to reduce the poverty rate. And several others said they hoped health care and welfare overhauls would be discussed in West Virginia in the days leading up to the retreat.
“I’m hoping that I’m going to hear that we’re going to work on welfare reform this year,” North Carolina Rep. Richard Hudson said Jan. 29. “And I hope we’re going to talk about health care, because we can’t accept the Senate’s answer that they don’t have the votes to do anything because people back home are hurting.”
Delayed by crash
Some members, however, saw the writing on the wall.
“I don’t know that I’m optimistic that welfare reform is going to get done,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said before the retreat. The North Carolina Republican had been similarly dour on prospects for overhauling the health insurance system.
When the retreat opened – slightly late after a train carrying GOP lawmakers, their families and aides from Washington to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, crashed into a dump truck on the way – Ryan provided an overview of the major topics up for discussion.
Those were infrastructure, immigration, workforce development, health care and budget caps and the debt ceiling, according to Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker.
Only two of the topics, infrastructure and workforce development, had full breakout sessions on Thursday, the main day of the retreat. The others were discussed briefly, and no significant decisions were made on immigration, the budget caps or the debt ceiling.
On health care, Republicans seemed to concede that a repeal and replace effort will not happen, despite their interest.
That’s largely because most senators don’t want to go through another partisan exercise on the topic via the budget reconciliation process – which Republicans acknowledge will not be used in 2018 – especially as they work with a one-vote cushion.
‘Poor tactical move’
With previous Senate commitments to take up health care stabilization bills related to reinsurance and the current law’s cost-sharing reduction subsidies, or CSRs, those issues will be “dealt with in some shape, form or fashion,” Meadows said.
“To allow those things to go on their own track without conservative input would be a poor tactical move,” he said when asked if conservatives are open to funding the CSRs given their previous opposition.
Any health care stabilization effort would require bipartisan support, and years’ worth of partisan hard feelings over the 2010 law make that a heavy lift.
Ryan, speaking to reporters on Feb. 1, provided a brief overview of some of the agenda items they discussed and made sure to mention welfare.
“We need to help people move from welfare to work so they can tap their true potential,” the speaker said.
But what Republicans discussed during the retreat was effectively welfare overhaul lite.
Rather than the laundry list of policy ideas outlined in the House GOP’s “A Better Way” welfare agenda from 2016, lawmakers are talking about a smaller set of “workforce development” policies, like requiring beneficiaries of food stamps and other government programs to do job training or otherwise show they are making an effort to get employed.
The phrasing evolution from “welfare reform” to “workforce development” is deliberate, an acknowledgement that the latter has more campaign appeal.
“We would never change terminology like that to make it more marketable, we wouldn’t do that, no,” Walker joked.