If the Trump tax cuts fall apart, the Republican Party will, too. A congressional GOP with no consensus on health care, immigration, or the fitness of sexual predators for high office is one thing. But a Republican majority that has no actionable agenda on tax policy? That’s a majority (if not a party) with no reason to exist.
This anxious logic — reinforced by threats of donor revolt — helped propel the Trump tax cuts through both chambers of Congress. Those cuts were historically unpopular. They made a mockery of Republican rhetoric on the deficit, regular order, and “middle-class tax relief.” But to vote down the legislation would have been to remove the last bit of glue holding congressional Republicans together.
Unfortunately for the GOP, it’s starting to look like passing the Trump tax cuts might do the very same thing. The moment Republicans fulfill their one unifying ambition, their intraparty divisions are poised to return with a vengeance — if they haven’t already.
On Monday night, the Freedom Caucus briefly took the Trump tax cuts hostage. To reconcile the House and Senate tax bills, representatives of each chamber were set to head to conference. But first, the House needed to execute the formality of voting to send them there. Mark Meadows — and more than a dozen of his far-right Freedom Caucus allies — decided to inject some drama into the proceedings. The lawmakers withheld their votes, thereby threatening to sabotage their party’s holy grail — over a disagreement about whether Congress should pass a two-week continuing resolution to keep the government open … or, a three-week one. As Politico reports:
Conservatives have balked at GOP leaders’ strategy to pass a two-week continuing resolution that would expire just before Christmas, fearful that Democrats will jam major spending increases into the must-pass bill. The full GOP conference is expected to settle on its spending plan at a closed-door meeting Tuesday, with a full floor vote expected Wednesday.
“There is a whole lot more pressure to get home for Christmas than there is for New Year’s,” Meadows said.
… At the last-minute huddle, the conservative caucus’s steering group agreed to push for a Dec. 30 continuing resolution, though they want it attached to a full year’s worth of defense spending. The group is also seeking long-awaited votes on welfare reform and deficit reduction bills, according to a House GOP source.
The Freedom Caucus’s tactical argument here is (characteristically) bizarre. These conservatives are arguing that if the fight over an omnibus spending bill takes place just before Christmas, Democrats will have more leverage — whereas if it takes place just before New Year’s, Republicans will. It’s hard to understand the logic here, unless one stipulates that Democrats are godless heathens who would rather wage war on Christmas then celebrate it.
Regardless, the fact is that Democrats’ leverage in the fight over spending has nothing to do with their supposed indifference to Christ’s birthday. Rather, that leverage derives from two realities:
(1) Unless Republicans abolish the filibuster, they will need Democratic cooperation in the Senate to lift the budget cap on military spending.
(2) As the opposition party, Democrats have less to lose, politically, from a government shutdown than Republicans do. (Historically, the public blames the party in power for any dysfunction that happens on its watch.)
Whether the fight comes on December 22 or December 30 — or next year — these realities will remain. It isn’t surprising, then, that the conservatives weren’t actually willing to torpedo tax cuts over this disagreement, and quickly relented Monday night.
As an impassioned stand for the tactical wisdom of postponing the budget fight until after Christmas, the Freedom Caucus’s stunt made little sense. But as a display of audacious conviction ahead of an intraparty, ideological fight over government spending, immigration, and health care, the tea-party tantrum is much more coherent.
In shepherding the Trump tax cuts through the Senate, Mitch McConnell promised Susan Collins that he would push for the passage of two bipartisan bills designed to strengthen the Obamacare marketplaces. The Majority Leader also assured Jeff Flake that he would have influence in the looming fight over whether to provide DACA recipients with protection from deportation.
Those promises happened to correspond with two of Nancy Pelosi’s top demands in the upcoming spending fight. House conservatives saw that negotiations over the tax bill were evolving into negotiations over the party’s post-tax agenda. And they didn’t want moderate Republican senators to be the only ones taking the former hostage to win leverage over the latter.
In interviews with the Daily Beast, House conservatives signaled that this was the true motivation behind their brief bout of obstruction:
Moving the Collins and Flake deals through the House was always going to be an uphill climb, with a conservative bloc sharply opposed to both measures, having dubbed DACA a de facto form of amnesty and arguing that the health insurance market stabilization bills that Collins supports are tantamount to a bailout for health insurers and what they view as a broken system. On Monday, those conservatives railed against McConnell for making promises on legislation that they have long opposed.
“We still have the same issues. Nothing has changed in the last two months just because we’re fulfilling our promise on delivering on tax reform,” Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, told The Daily Beast. “I find it problematic to be promising something that the House has shunned from very early on.”
… “I think this is exactly what the American people are sick of: learning about trading votes to modify the healthcare system and one fifth of the economy in exchange for a tax vote,” Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA), a member of the hardline House Freedom Caucus, told The Daily Beast. “So it seems like it would be wiser for Republicans to actually follow what is in the Republican platform and not what is in the Democratic platform.”
The DACA issue is particularly explosive. Enthusiasm for deporting 800,000 (American-raised, gainfully employed, English-speaking) undocumented immigrants separates the GOP’s activist base from the rest of the country — including the Republican Party leadership. Much like the opposition to background checks, support for deporting Dreamers is confined to a small minority of the GOP’s rank and file. But that minority is impassioned and organized, and has already proven capable of taking out “amnesty-loving” Republicans in low-turnout primaries. In 2018, the only policy position that will distinguish Steve Bannon’s band of far-right primary challengers from their “Establishment” opponents is a thirst for deporting Dreamers.
For Paul Ryan, the price of indulging the Breitbart base on this matter is massive. There is no precedent for stripping legal status from a group of people this numerous, let alone a group so deeply integrated into American society. Dreamers have allies in corporate America, churches, unions, colleges, and countless local and state governments. The backlash to their dispossession will be huge and unrelenting. And yet, Ryan stands to pay nearly as high a price for bucking the Breitbart base.
Fights over funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program — and stabilizing the individual insurance market — are poised to provoke similar divisions. Collins’s demand that her party follow tax cuts with more funding for Obamacare was ostensibly an attempt to rationalize her vote for repealing the individual mandate. But it could also be read as a signal that the “moderate” Mainer has no interest in “starving the beast.” Last summer, Republicans failed to find consensus on slashing social spending. Conservatives hoped that deficit-ballooning tax cuts would force such consensus. Moderates, by contrast, seem to hope that delivering a big legislative win will empower the party’s leadership to buck their right wing.
Roy Moore and Donald Trump may soon pour gasoline onto these intraparty fires. If Alabama elects an alleged serial sexual predator next week, McConnell will have to deal with a fanatical theocrat who won high office on a promise to make the Majority Leader’s life a living hell. While there appears little appetite among congressional Republicans to expel Moore from the Senate, there is bound to be disagreement about precisely how much collegial respect lawmakers will owe the disreputable demagogue. Meanwhile, as Robert Mueller’s probe has begun flipping the president’s erstwhile allies, Trump has lashed out at the FBI — and signaled an interest in relieving the special counsel of his duties.
By early next year, the GOP’s battles over legislation could metastasize into a fight over the rule of law itself.
It’s possible that Trump will spare his party that fate. And, perhaps, the president and the GOP leadership will find a way to steer their party through the choppy waters of the spending fight, buoyed by the tailwinds of their tax-cut triumph.
But it isn’t hard to see how Paul Ryan could find himself caught in a perfect storm with a mutinous crew — and no tax cuts on the horizon that he can pacify them by pointing to.