4 Potential Stumbling Blocks for the New Republican Congress

Right now Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are feeling their oats. But the road ahead for congressional Republicans is perilous. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The 115th Congress opened at noon on Tuesday with all House Members (including 52 new ones) and 34 Senators (7 newbies) being sworn in. The latter ceremony featured outgoing Vice-President Joe Biden performing what will likely be his last significant official function.

Biden aside, the day belonged to Republicans, who will enjoy for only the fourth time (they actually had it and lost it at the start of the George W. Bush administration, and regained it in the 2002 midterms) in the last 86 years control of the White House and both chambers of Congress — a status commonly called “the trifecta.”

In this era of partisan gridlock, a trifecta is rare and priceless. And so there is all sorts of excitement in the GOP that years and even decades of pent-up conservative policy dreams can now be realized. Some of these dreams simply involve dismembering and desecrating Obama administration initiatives from universal health coverage to bank regulations to a shift away from dependence on fossil fuels to expanded overtime pay. Others go much deeper, to the gradual transformation or abolition of New Deal and Great Society programs that conservatives believe have sapped America morally and economically. Put it all together and you have what the Washington Post’s David Weigel calls “the most ambitious conservative policy agenda since the 1920s.”

Republicans do not have overwhelming majorities in either congressional chamber. But thanks to the party-line voting habits of the House, and a budget device that enables simple majorities to avoid filibusters in the Senate, it is on paper entirely feasible for the GOP to conduct a brisk domestic-policy revolution that could be more or less consummated this calendar year. Most of the raw material for this revolution has already been drafted in serial Ryan budgets that have won the votes of virtually all congressional Republicans. Procedurally last year’s budget reconciliation legislation repealing Obamacare and defunding Planned Parenthood, a bill Obama vetoed, offers a template. What could go wrong? Specifically, there are four pitfalls facing congressional Republicans:

A curveball from Trump: Republican hopes for Trump on domestic legislation are almost entirely expressed by a famous quote from super-lobbyist Grover Norquist that he first made about Mitt Romney in 2012, but that is in the air everywhere right now:

We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget. … We just need a president to sign this stuff… a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen.

Many congressional Republicans have convinced themselves that Trump has passed the “working digits” test and is getting his signing pen ready:

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a member of House leadership, said his Republican colleagues were “almost giddy” about the new session that’s beginning. “We’ve got so much more favorable relationship with the new administration. …We know if we can get things to the president’s desk that they’ll be signed.”

That’s a remarkably confident attitude to have toward the most unpredictable politician in American history.

Ask yourself this: Is the goal cherished by Trump senior counselor Stephen Bannon to talk his boss into getting out of the way and letting Paul Ryan design the future of the federal government and the Republican Party? I don’t think so. Bannon and the Trump “base” aside, the mogul is not very likely to react well to a scenario where he’s perceived as the puppet of the Republican Establishment. And given the complex and inter-dependent nature of the legislative agenda for Ryan and McConnell, in which if anything goes wrong the whole year could go south, the vulnerability of congressional Republicans to a single hostile Trump tweet is hard to overstate.

Trump’s apparent lack of interest in the budget process — the vehicle for most of the biggest GOP plans for 2017 — could be taken as a sign that he’ll stay out of the way and let Congress run the country while he focuses on intimidating individual business executives, foreign leaders, and the media. He reportedly may not even submit a budget of his own in 2017, and after putting off selection of an OMB director until fairly late in the transition, chose a House Republican for the job. But that indifference could cut both ways, and if Trump signals he’s not interested in a big high-stakes budget bill in 2017, Republicans will be right back to square one.

Discord and disagreement among GOP members. Narrow Republican margins in both houses of Congress mean there is not much of a margin for error, which gives ambitious or seditious individual members potentially enormous leverage. In the House, the Freedom Caucus is ever-ready to accuse the leadership of ideological treachery, perhaps on the very issues (e.g., the speed of Obamacare repeal, and the fateful question of whether to touch Medicare and Social Security) that cause the party as a whole the most political heartburn. In the Senate, the GOP’s two-vote margin (amplified by Vice-President Pence’s tie-breaking ability) makes very small coalitions of rebellious Republicans potentially very powerful. And you have cranky lame ducks like John McCain and Orrin Hatch who are relatively invulnerable to grassroots conservative (or Trumpite) pressure, plus right-wing ideologues like Rand Paul and Tom Cotton who may see an advantage in going rogue now and then. Paul is already making noises about opposing any budget actions (and pretty much every GOP initiative in 2017 is going to be styled as a budget action to take advantage of rules that prohibit filibusters) that don’t aim at a balanced federal budget.

The possibility of defections has already led Mitch McConnell to hold off on any contentious Senate votes until Pence is in place. If this fear persists Republicans may have to try to bring a few Democrats across the line, and on some issues the ten Democratic Senators up for reelection in 2018 in states Trump carried could be seducible. But the very act of packaging huge batches of legislation into budget bills, which is necessary to avoid Democratic filibusters, could make picking off individual Democrats difficult. Every bill will be loaded with “poison pills” for Democrats.

Successful Democratic resistance: Speaking of Democrats, they have gone to school for the last six years on the politically successful use of obstruction by congressional Republicans, and are generally not making the sort of billing and cooing noises a lot of them (and their predecessors) made when George W. Bush took office 16 years ago. It appears that Democratic resistance to the putative GOP policy revolution will rely on two tactics: creating “wedge” issues that divide congressional Republicans or (more likely) divide a significant number of congressional Republicans from the Trump White House, and exploiting GOP “overreach” on hot-button issues like Medicare and Social Security where Republicans are simply on the wrong side of public opinion, even among their own partisans.

An ancillary Democratic tactic designed to undermine GOP morale and potentially feed divisions in their ranks will be an incessant drumbeat of information on GOP and Trump administration ethics violations and conflicts of interest: a rich vein of material in a billionaire-heavy administration working with an interest-group-dominated Congress to make life immensely easier for plutocrats at home and abroad. The intimacy of the 45th president and several of his key appointees with Vladimir Putin is a line of attack that could help revive the once-powerful conservative angst over Trump, particularly if he disappoints them in other important ways. Whether or not they manage to actually deny confirmation to any members of Trump’s Cabinet, confirmation hearings should be viewed as a trial effort by Democrats to explore potential GOP fault lines and depress Trump’s already-low approval ratings from the get-go. The goal would be to slow down or even stop any revolutionary domestic legislation and make the new regime’s first 100 days a failure or a wash, and the 2018 midterms potentially a big Democratic comeback.

The boundaries of objective reality. Perhaps the single biggest long-term pitfall for “giddy” congressional Republicans is that facts are not friendly to many of the assumptions on which they are relying. And even with a post-truth administration in the White House, objective reality has a way of popping up and spoiling things.

The most glaring and regularly recurring problem for the GOP has to do with its fiscal math. You cannot produce big high-end tax cuts and a defense-spending increase and move toward a balanced budget without cutting wildly popular entitlement programs. And even though Republican pols and conservative elites are capable of astonishing hypocrisy and magical thinking on this subject, broken promises over fiscal goals will cause some political problems, as they did for Ronald Reagan late in his presidency and did again for George W. Bush.

More broadly, Republicans are once again buying into the pixie dust of supply-side economics (see my colleague Jonathan Chait’s fine book on the subject) and its regularly refuted theories of economic growth. Nothing about its flaws has changed since its last failure.

And to cite a specific example that’s very much on the minds of Republicans today, objective reality is making a hash of their hopes to repeal Obamacare without having a workable “replacement” plan consistent with their ideology — because there will never be one.

None of these pitfalls (other than the last) are certain to trip up Republican plans. In an ideal GOP world the Ryan budget will be enacted and signed by a President Trump who is distracting attention with wild but politically nonfatal behavior in other arenas. And perhaps the negative consequences of finding out, finally, what life would have been like had Barry Goldwater won in 1964 can somehow be sloughed off or blamed on a future Democratic regime. But the odds are the giddiness among congressional Republicans will give way to a grim and even fearful set of challenges.

Four Stumbling Blocks for the New Republican Congress