As President Donald Trump headed on Friday for an extended summer stay at his New Jersey golf retreat, Republican leaders in the Congress were already home, still searching for the magic legislative formula to advance major items on Mr. Trump’s agenda on Capitol Hill, as their slow start on key issues has set up what could be a frenetic September that risks not being able to deliver a different outcome for the White House after Labor Day.
The House left last week for a summer legislative break; the Senate went home on Thursday. The next legislative work days are scheduled the week of September 4, meaning substantive work in Congress on the Trump Agenda is on hold for the next month.
Here’s where things stand on Capitol Hill:
1. The story remains the same on the Trump Agenda. I’ve been writing this story for months. While the President has been successful in holding back and/or reversing regulations in the Executive Branch, and has certainly enjoyed success along the border with a stepped up enforcement of immigration laws, the record in the Congress on the Trump-GOP agenda is not so good. Yes, the Congress did approve 14 measures to reverse regulations from President Obama’s administration. Yes, the Congress has passed bipartisan bills to improve the VA. But when it comes to health care, tax reform, infrastructure, the budget, next year’s spending bills, changes to entitlement spending and more – all of that remains on hold until after Labor Day, and maybe longer than that. “We have not done well on the big events,” said Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC).
2. Health care not moving the GOP’s way. After coming within one vote in late July of approving a bare bones “skinny” health care bill, the Senate is now moving in the direction of tweaking the Obama health law, instead of making major changes. That has left conservatives on Capitol Hill gnashing their teeth. “I think we need to honor our promise to repeal Obamacare,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), though it must be noted that no GOP bill which has been voted on this year would have fully repealed the Obama heath law. Now the focus will be on bipartisan hearings in a pair of Senate committees after Labor Day. It is simply not clear what comes next for the GOP on health care, but it doesn’t seem like major “repeal” is going to be one of the options.
3. Questions about GOP confidence on tax reform. Watching the legislative process up close gives you a great feeling for what is possible in Congress and what is not. This past week, there seemed to be a large amount of confidence coming from Republican circles about tax reform – even before there is an actual bill. There was talk from a prominent anti-tax activist of a bill that could be approved in one month, while a top White House official said it could be through the House in October and the Senate in November. Frankly, after watching the difficulties that Republicans encountered over health care, that type of schedule for tax reform seems somewhat aggressive. The plan is to unveil the legislative text of a GOP bill after Labor Day. Speaker Paul Ryan says they will get the job done. Some aren’t so sure. Stay tuned.
4. Tax reform threatened by GOP budget impasse. Before Speaker Ryan and the House can start on tax reform, first lawmakers there have to deal with the budget for 2018. Congress is supposed to pass the “budget resolution” by April 15 of each year – it’s the budget ‘blueprint’ for the next fiscal year. It is now August, and that measure has not made it to the floor of either the House or the Senate – almost four months after the deadline. That budget outline is especially important for tax reform, because it will authorize the use of budget reconciliation for a tax bill, avoiding a possible Senate filibuster. The problem is, it’s not clear that the GOP has enough votes to approve the budget resolution in either the House or the Senate. Also, there is a dispute among Republicans over how to treat tax reform – the House wants a “budget neutral” plan; that means that if you cut taxes in one place, you have to raise that amount of revenue somewhere else; some in the GOP don’t like that at all. There is a lot that Republicans have to hash out first, before they even get to the tax cutting details.
5. GOP staring at a difficult month of September. There almost isn’t enough oxygen on the Earth to deal with what Republican lawmakers face after Labor Day. When the House and Senate return to work, they will have only 12 joint legislative work days scheduled to get all sorts of items done by the end of the month. Among the issues that need to be addressed, Congress must vote on raising the nation’s debt ceiling, and approving a temporary budget to avoid a government shutdown. That’s big enough, to avoid a default on U.S. debt that could roil the world’s stock markets, and a shutdown that could close down much of the government. Then, add in the work that the Senate will try to do on health care, plus efforts to roll out the details of a tax bill. The House Freedom Caucus is already serving notice it won’t be on board with a simple move to raise the debt limit, which is favored by the White House.
6. Trump infrastructure plan still does not exist. For months, President Trump has talked about a $1 trillion public-private partnership on infrastructure, to funnel all sorts of money into new roads and bridges. Democrats have been delighted with the basic idea, while many Republicans in Congress have acted like they never heard the President say anything about the subject. Key GOP lawmakers have made no moves on infrastructure, and the White House has still not produced a plan, or an actual bill. The President has talked about this idea repeatedly, but nothing has been done. From my experience in being around Congress since 1980, you can’t pass something in Congress if it’s not in a bill. It is now August. The bill still does not exist.
7. House GOP response – hit the press. House Republicans have given their lawmakers a list of talking points to rattle off over the August break – if they are asked to explain why they haven’t gotten much of their agenda done. Their answer is, they have done a lot, but the press isn’t paying attention. The start of the GOP video that’s linked below hits the media at the start – ‘they are focused on chaos’ – “House Republicans are focused on what matters to you.” While that sounds great, as mentioned above, the big ticket items for President Trump – and Congressional Republicans – are still in legislative limbo. Maybe things will be different by the end of the year. And maybe not.
8. Congress does get some things done on VA. As the GOP rightly argues, there are some things the Congress has been able to do in 2017, and one area of success for both parties has been in the approval of several bills to help reform operations at the VA, which is a big priority not only for President Trump – but for all lawmakers as well. This week, the Senate approved a bill to make changes in the GI bill – “Veterans can now look forward to a newly-reformed GI Bill program which will be around for generations to come,” the Concerned Veterans for America said in a statement. Lawmakers have also approved reforms to improve the VA Choice program and more. But fixing the VA is easy. Finding bipartisanship on tax reform, health care and more – that takes a lot of heavy lifting.
9. No recess appointments in August. As Republicans did for part of President Obama’s time in office, and the Democrats did to President George W. Bush, Democrats refused to let the Congress officially adjourn for the August break. That means the House and Senate will convene every three days (as required under the Constitution) in a pro forma session, in which no legislative business would be conducted – but the Congress would technically remain in session. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that a President cannot make a ‘recess appointment’ unless the Congress is out of session for more than ten days – Mr. Obama made recess appointments in between a three day break, which was overturned by the Justices in a unanimous ruling.
10. The Trump game plan for September. What can President Trump do to change the dynamic in Congress and get some of these bills moving? There is no easy answer. He can certainly use Twitter to put some heat on GOP lawmakers, and use the bully pulpit to reinforce where he stands on certain issues. The problem for Mr. Trump in the halls of Congress isn’t really of his own making – it’s an issue that has bedeviled the GOP for a number of years, as Republicans aren’t fully on the same page on key issues like health care, the budget, taxes, spending and more. For now, much of this President’s success will be on issues he can control – Executive Branch regulations and immigration enforcement are at the top of that list. Getting tax cuts, tax reform and more will take the Congress to help as well.
11. The Congressional schedule. The House and Senate are in session at the same time in September for only 12 days. The House has 12 scheduled work days over three weeks; the Senate might work 15 in the whole month. I know it sounds crazy, but from my 30-plus years of covering the Congress as a reporter, you can’t pass bills when the House and Senate are not in session. I’m not sure that was covered in “Schoolhouse Rock,” but you get the picture. There is a lot that needs to be addressed by lawmakers and the President – but a lot of that cannot happen until after Labor Day.