Just days before the end of the year, congressional Republicans finally handed President Trump his first major legislative victory. But their effort to pass an unpopular and incoherent tax bill left them with little time to address many other pressing concerns. The 2018 legislative agenda is already dominated by tasks Congress was supposed to take care of weeks, or even months ago. And while GOP leaders are still clinging to big dreams they concocted at their sad college keg parties, divisions within the party may prevent them from enacting them before the midterm elections are in full swing. Here’s a look at what’s on the docket for 2018.
Keeping the Government Open
Faced with the possibility of starting the Christmas weekend with a government shutdown, Congress opted to kick the can down the road … a little further. Last week Congress passed a stopgap spending bill, just as they did when last year’s appropriations expired in September, and earlier in December.
Congress can’t keep putting off the fight forever, so it looks like they’ll need to come up with a budget deal by the new shutdown deadline, January 19, 2018. The continuing resolution included temporary extensions for several programs, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the federal government’s warrantless-surveillance program, and the Veterans Choice program, which allows some veterans to go to civilian doctors instead of VA medical facilities. It also provided a funding increase of $4.7 billion to the Department of Defense for missile defense and ship repair, and waived “pay-as-you-go” rules that could have triggered $25 billion cuts to Medicaid and other spending programs.
President Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan recently accused Democrats of wanting a shutdown to distract from their tax victory, but the New York Times reports that Democrats are increasingly worried that they’ll take the blame if there’s no budget deal. Trump previously said the U.S. “needs a good shutdown,” though other Republicans think that’s a terrible idea.
“I can’t think of a bigger act of political malpractice after a successful tax-reform vote than to shut the government down,” said Republican Representative Charlie Dent. “Talk about stepping on your own message. I mean, really, how dumb would that be?”
As if passing tax cuts that disproportionately benefit wealthy people and corporations didn’t give Democrats enough to run on in 2018, Republicans simultaneously engineered a children’s health-care crisis. Though the Children’s Health Insurance Program — which provides coverage to nearly 9 million kids from low-income families — has bipartisan support, Republicans allowed funding to expire at the end of September.
December’s stopgap spending bill provided $2.85 billion to keep the program going through the end of March. That should avert the immediate crisis for the 1.9 million children in 24 states and Washington, D.C., who were expected to lose coverage in January. However, as Kelly Whitener of the Georgetown Health Policy Institute writes, that’s not really enough to get through the next few months:
The federal government spends about $14.5 billion on CHIP each year. So half a years’ funding would be in the neighborhood of $7.25 billion. I’m no math whiz but I can see that $2.85 billion is not enough. States will continue to spend their time and money planning for the end of CHIP. And families will continue to question whether their children’s coverage will end this month or next.
Everyone acknowledges that Congress needs to come up with a long-term CHIP-funding solution as quickly as possible, but that’s only encouraging lawmakers to play politics with the program.
“The problem you’ve got is that CHIP is so popular that there is this thought process that well, anybody who has another bill that they’d like to get through, if they can get it attached to CHIP, they have a better chance of getting it through, which causes problems for CHIP,” said Republican Senator Mike Rounds.
Spy Program Reauthorization
Yet another debate that was pushed off to focus on tax cuts: the reauthorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the federal government to intercept and collect foreigners’ communications overseas, even if Americans’ communications are swept up too.
Republicans are not eager to tackle the reauthorization, as the party is divided on the issue. Some agree with President Trump and top intelligence officials, who say it’s vital to national security. “It has become an indispensable tool by which we can determine and gain information about threats to the United States, about threats to our troops, about weapons of mass destruction, proliferation, about cyberattacks, about any number of things,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said last month.
However, privacy hawks in both parties want the program repealed, or at least reformed. Last week Republican Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee vowed to vote against any spending bill that includes permanent reauthorization of FISA Section 702.
Funding Disaster Relief
While the House passed an $81 billion disaster-relief bill last week, the Senate opted to push the legislation into the new year. Some conservatives opposed the bill — which would have brought the year’s disaster-relief spending to a record $133 billion — complaining that it was too expensive, and much of the funding wasn’t for emergency purposes. Democrats said it needed to do more, especially for Puerto Rico, and admitted they want to use the bill as leverage.
“Democrats want to make sure that we have equal bargaining, and we’re not going to allow things like disaster relief go forward without discussing some of the other issues we care about,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
President Trump moved the hairy issue of immigration reform to the top of the GOP’s legislative agenda in September when he announced that President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program would end in six months — if Congress couldn’t come up with a fix by then.
Technically, that gives Congress until March, but immigration advocates are pushing Democrats to refuse to pass any spending bill that does not include a permanent fix for the nearly 800,000 young, undocumented immigrants at risk of losing their protected status.
A handful of senators have been negotiating a bipartisan immigration-reform bill, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has reportedly agreed to hold a vote in January before the government-funding deadline. Republican Senator Jeff Flake suggested following a White House meeting last week that they were still unclear on what President Trump would be willing to sign. “We couldn’t finish this product, this bill, until we knew where the administration was,” he said.
Senators said details of the plan would be released in the coming days. According to the Washington Examiner, it’s expected to include a path to legalization for DACA recipients, in exchange for funding for a border-wall system (which wouldn’t be 100 percent physical wall) and limits on chain migration.
Despite the shutdown threat, Speaker Ryan has suggested he isn’t as concerned about solving the DACA issue as his colleagues in the Senate. House conservatives are likely to reject a Senate plan that involves a pathway to citizenship.
“Do we have to have a DACA resolution? Yes, we do,” Ryan said in November. “The deadline’s March, as far as I understand it. We’ve got other deadlines in front of that, like fiscal-year deadlines and appropriation deadlines.”
Welfare and Entitlement Reform
There’s plenty that congressional Republicans have to do in 2018, but what about what they want to do? Earlier this month, Paul Ryan revealed his big goal for 2018 on Ross Kaminsky’s talk-radio show. “We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit,” he said.
Ryan mentioned health-care cuts specifically, but then backtracked, denying that he was talking about Medicare cuts. “The kinds of the entitlement reform that we are going to be pursuing are the kinds to get people on welfare to work,” he said.
There are reports that President Trump is preparing executive orders that will target programs like food stamps and Medicaid. But Mitch McConnell quickly shut down the notion that congressional Republicans would help, telling Axios he “would not expect to see” that on the 2018 agenda.
So, what would McConnell be up for?
“We have to have Democratic involvement,” McConnell told Axios. “So things like infrastructure … to do something in that area we’re going to have to have Democratic participation.”
President Trump has been talking about tackling infrastructure all year, but he got distracted by attacking James Comey and defending white supremacists. Last week Trump announced the latest pivot to infrastructure in a tweet responding to the fatal Amtrak crash in Washington.
Trump has yet to unveil a detailed infrastructure plan, but it looks like he may try to hammer something out with GOP leaders next month.
“I think you’ll see the president roll out infrastructure plan in January and the president has already invited Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan to Camp David in the first weekend of January to make sure we are all on the same page for what our priorities are for 2018,” Marc Short, the White House director of legislative affairs, told Fox News Sunday.
President Trump has taken to claiming, falsely, that by repealing Obamacare’s individual mandate in the tax legislation, he’s essentially killed the law.
Republican Senator Susan Collins agreed to vote for the tax legislation because McConnell promised that she would get a vote on two bills meant to stabilize Obamacare by the end of the year. They were DOA in the House, but Collins voted to keep the government funded rather than putting up a fight.
Now some Republicans are demanding a new push to do the opposite in 2018, and finally deal the Obamacare death blow.
“To those who believe — including Senate Republican leadership — that in 2018 there will not be another effort to repeal and replace Obamacare — you are sadly mistaken,” said Senator Lindsey Graham. “By eliminating the individual mandate in the tax bill we have pulled one of the pillars of Obamacare out. But by no means has Obamacare been repealed or replaced.”
McConnell signaled that he will not be revisiting his most embarrassing defeat of 2017, especially now that the Alabama special Senate election left him down one Republican vote.
“Well, we obviously were unable to completely repeal and replace with a 52-48 Senate,” McConnell said last week. “We’ll have to take a look at what that looks like with a 51-49 Senate. But I think we’ll probably move on to other issues.”