The strategy for a 2017 Republican legislative blitz once the GOP controlled the White House and both congressional chambers was very clear: Cram as much controversial stuff as possible into one or two budget-reconciliation bills that could be enacted without a single Democratic vote, and then exert pressure on the 10 Senate Democrats from states carried by Donald Trump who are up for reelection in 2018 to get them to 60 votes on everything else. Both avenues for legislation depended on relatively high levels of unity among Republicans. The latter would require in addition defections by eight Democrats.
It’s early days yet, but the “blitz” is not looking formidable at present. The budget-reconciliation bill that was supposed to repeal Obamacare (along with a few other tasty treats for the GOP conservative base, like defunding Planned Parenthood) is already past due, without any sign of resolution of the massive problems associated with trying to get rid of and replace the Affordable Care Act. Even if Republicans come up with a consensus scheme, it’s now no longer certain they can stop congressional defections of conservatives who are impatient with the pace of change on health-care policy, or those GOPers who are worried about disruptions of existing insurance. To the extent Obamacare repeal-and-replacement cannot be accomplished within that one budget reconciliation bill (and almost nobody believes it can), then Republicans are miles away from 60 Senate votes. And the Democratic senators they would need to get across the finish line will all come to the table with demands that are sure to infuriate the right and perhaps mess up the closely interrelated features of a new plan that are necessary to make it work.
One central miscalculation that is complicating plans for Obamacare replacement and other controversial Republican efforts is the assumption that red-state Democratic senators would just roll over and begin voting with the GOP. It is beginning to become apparent that they are in fact looking for unpopular Republican initiatives to oppose, for the abundantly smart reason that voters need a reason to prefer them over their 2018 Republican opponents. This dynamic is obvious with the two most vulnerable Senate Democrats, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota (a state Trump carried 63-27) and Joe Manchin of West Virginia (Trump carried his state 69-26). Both senators were conspicuously considered by Trump for cabinet gigs; both have made billing and cooing noises at the new administration and talked about the need for bipartisanship. Both, however, went out of their way to announce opposition for any GOP move to privatize or otherwise reduce funding for Medicare, an objective beloved by conservatives nearly as much as the Obamacare repeal. And in the most controversial Trump cabinet confirmation fight, involving Education secretary–designate Betsy DeVos, all Senate Democrats are holding fast in opposition, for the simple reason that teachers are more important to their reelection prospects than any gold stars for helping out Trump.
This surprising solidarity may extend to other GOP priorities where Democratic votes are essential, and where Republican proposals are unpopular, especially among Trump voters. One example right on the horizon is the repeal of Dodd-Frank, a great white whale for the Wall Street types who have come pouring into the Trump administration — but not necessarily congenial to white, working-class voters in West Virginia or North Dakota. As a report from Bloomberg explains:
Senate Republicans would need to woo at least eight Democrats to join them on a bipartisan Dodd-Frank overhaul, but they don’t even have a starting point for any negotiations. Having 10 Senate Democrats facing re-election in states Trump won theoretically gives Republicans a chance for bipartisan action, but making life easier for bankers isn’t high on the to-do list of any of those Democrats.
That is the problem with many GOP initiatives. And it reflects the more general problem that big parts of the congressional Republican agenda are terribly unpopular, and not part of some 2016 electoral mandate. Legitimate congressional fears that President Trump could undermine them at the drop of a tweet add to the general atmosphere of fear and confusion. And the absence of Democratic support means less bipartisan “cover” for dangerous positions.
So it is beginning to look like Republicans need a reboot for their 2017 legislative strategy. Ultimately they — and their president — will have to decide whether to trim their sails or go bravely into the high winds of public opinion to do what they really want to do. If they choose the latter direction, they may find their crew diminishing in size and enthusiasm.