“Clearly, no budget, no tax reform.”
That comment made by House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady on Thursday, and then again for good measure on Monday, is the primary selling point on which House Republican leaders are hoping to whip up enough support to pass their fiscal 2018 budget resolution. Yet that pitch has done little to appease the naysayers.
With the budget still lacking the needed votes, some GOP tax writers are concerned about the future of the yearslong goal to rewrite the tax code. But most of that concern remains shrouded in a cloud of optimism.
“I’m confident there are 218 Republicans in the House who came here to do bold, pro-growth tax reform,” Brady said. “And they know we can’t do it together until we have budget and reconciliation.”
The Texas Republican is just one of many members who have said in recent weeks that they believe the desire to overhaul the tax code will push enough GOP lawmakers to ultimately vote for the budget resolution. However, even if sufficient support was to materialize, a vote before the House departs at the end of the week for its monthlong summer recess appears unlikely.
The House GOP budget includes reconciliation instructions for a deficit-neutral tax overhaul, as well as $203 billion in cuts to mandatory spending. If the House and Senate both pass and reconcile their budgets with a set of reconciliation instructions, they can use the resulting process to fast-track a tax overhaul without the threat of a filibuster in the Senate and rely solely on GOP votes.
“The budget is the gateway to tax reform,” House Budget Committee member Todd Rokita of Indiana said.
Without the budget reconciliation process that allows for a simple-majority vote in the Senate, Republicans would need bipartisan cooperation on a tax plan to ensure its passage. GOP leaders have effectively ruled out that option, citing partisan divisions.
However, intraparty tension is already threatening to derail a tax code rewrite before Republicans even release a bill.
Conservatives, mostly from the hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus, have remained opposed to the budget resolution because they feel the reconciliation instructions do not provide a high enough target for mandatory spending cuts and because they want more details on what the tax bill would look like. Specifically, they want to ensure the tax plan would not be contingent on a border adjustment tax on imports that they are not on board with.
Moderates, meanwhile, are concerned that attaching mandatory spending cuts to a reconciliation measure for overhauling the tax code will make the latter more difficult to achieve. They would also like to see a bipartisan, bicameral budget deal to change the top-line spending numbers dictated by the Budget Control Act before voting on a budget.
“Budgets are always some of the toughest votes,” House Ways and Means member Devin Nunes said.
The California Republican said he is hopeful the prospect of a tax overhaul and the ability to use the budget process to put GOP policy ideas into law will provide for a different outcome than last year, when House Republicans never got enough members on board to pass their budget blueprint.
While Republicans did not pass a full budget last year, they did so early this year using a so-called shell budget — one empty of policy details — to set up the reconciliation process so they could address health care.
So far, members have said they’ve heard no talk of doing another shell budget or any other Plan B for what will happen if they can’t pass the budget resolution that the House Budget Committee reported out unanimously last Wednesday.
“I just believe we got to work as hard as we can to get to tax reform. That’s why I was a little concerned with the budget last night as well,” Ohio Rep. James B. Renacci, who serves on the Budget and Ways and Means committees, said Thursday. “I was willing to pass it and vote for it to move it to the floor. But in the end I hope there’s an amendment process.”
Renacci said he is concerned the current instructions for a deficit-neutral tax overhaul are not flexible enough because the Senate would have to measure that under a static scoring model, unlike the House, which would rely on dynamic scoring.
“That’s concerning because it’s almost impossible to get revenue-neutral, static-based tax reform,” he said.
Calling himself “pathologically optimistic,” Ways and Means member David Schweikert said he can see a path to getting the votes on the budget but that it will require leadership to have a lot of one-on-one sessions with members to walk through their concerns.
“It is sort of the dance we go through every budget,” the Arizona Republican said. “It’s a lot of math. There’s a lot of discomfort. … For some of us, the fact that it’s finally cracking the door open to finally touch mandatory spending, it is a big deal.”
Still, there is a realization among some members that failure to pass a budget may imperil the chances of Republicans rewriting the tax code this year.
Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Kelly, also a Ways and Means member, said the budget is just one of many roadblocks to getting a tax overhaul.
“I don’t know because I’m not included in those talks,” he said when asked if there was a Plan B. “I would sure as hell hope that if you’re in charge, you have a Plan A, a Plan B, a Plan C and a Plan D, that you actually are knowing that, ‘OK, if this one doesn’t work, what do we plug in.’ And if you tell me, ‘No, this is the only way we’re going to go. If we can’t do it that way, we’re not going to do it’ — that’s not responsible.”
Former Minnesota Republican Sen. David Durenberger took aim Monday at current GOP senators for attempting to ram through a motion to proceed on their controversial bill to dismantle the 2010 health care law.
In a USA Today op-ed, Durenberger laid out the normal procedures for deliberating on a bill with ramifications for millions of Americans of this magnitude: “You ask questions. You hold hearings. You understand what it would mean to your constituents. You listen to those who know the system. And when it doesn’t add up, you vote against it.”
The former senator published his piece on the heels of a Congressional Budget Office report released last week that concluded 32 million more Americans would be without health insurance in 2026 under the current plan to repeal the 2010 law now and replace it later.
The report also estimated that 17 million more people would lose their health insurance next year if repeal was enacted, and that premiums would increase by roughly 25 percent.
The White House dismissed the CBO report, saying in a statement that the nonpartisan group uses “flawed” techniques in its analyses.
New polls show Americans would prefer the 2010 health care law to remain in effect over having it repealed, and Durenberger warned Senate Republicans to heed public opinion.
“A vote in these circumstances will rightly provoke anger and distrust unlikely to abate,” he wrote. “Take it from me: A no vote on the Motion to Proceed this week is the only one that will be defensible in the years to come.”
Republicans lawmakers have crusaded for seven years on the campaign trail and in the halls of Congress to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, but they seem stuck now that they have a majority in both chambers and control of the White House.
Many remain in the dark on how Majority Leader Mitch McConnell plans to guide the health care legislation through the Senate for a final vote, but leaders have insisted they stagger forward with the process anyway.
Durenberger called for more transparency among the GOP leadership and said that “voting on this hodgepodge of mysterious bills is not the way.”
He reminded Senate Republicans how Democrats had reached across the aisle in 2010 during the health care deliberations and proceedings.
“Seven years ago, Democrats supported a bill far from Democratic orthodoxy,” Durenberger wrote. “It did not provide for single payer, nor Medicare for all. Not even a public option. They handed Republicans a chance to build a health system that plays to our unique strengths as a nation, not to our weaknesses.”
Durenberger, who no longer supports the Republican Party, was a pre-eminent Senate authority on health care in the 1980s as chairman of the Health Subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee.
His political career was effectively ruined in 1990 when his Senate colleagues unanimously denounced him for misusing public funds, a charge to which he later pleaded guilty in court and was sentenced to a year of probation in 1995, the year he left office.
Durenberger urged Senate Republicans to consider what repeal without replacement would mean.
“There are no do-overs,” he wrote. “The vote for the Motion to Proceed is likely a vote for final passage, and the House clearly stands ready to pass the Senate bill unchanged.”
“There is no making good on all of the issues later,” he added. “Once the funds for health coverage are gone, it will take new tax increases to replace them. And what’s the likelihood that will happen?”
A president whose brand is all about flouting basic political manners is getting matched in misbehavior more and more by fellow Republicans in Congress.
The first six months under President Donald Trump have been marked not only by a further coarsening of GOP rhetoric, stoked mainly by incessant infighting in backrooms, but also by increasing defiance of decades of behavioral norms — from Trump’s nominal friends and skeptics alike, when they’ve been trying to work with him and when they’ve been scrambling to maneuver despite him.
The declining standards of congressional comportment are remarkable, but, in a sense, have been easy to anticipate:
When the formalities of procedural and political regular order get abandoned at the Capitol, a world of informal and sometimes even infantile irregularity will quickly start shaping how lawmakers approach the legislative process, their political calculations, and their dealings with one another.
A return to normal for the Hill’s Republicans is essentially impossible so long as their party’s leader is someone who unabashedly, even boastfully, violates Washington’s already lowered expectations for minimally collegial conduct — and whose win-at-all-costs, never-admit-mistakes code is fundamentally at odds with proper political manners.
But it’s also true that even before Trump, the party’s high command, first and foremost in the Senate under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, had started whacking away at procedural regular order and thereby helping to define decorum down.
His stature as the longest-tenured top GOP official in Washington, and someone who used to wear the “institutionalist” label with pride, makes all the more striking McConnell’s behavioral shift toward embracing indecorous conduct on the Hill he could once be counted on to deride as deviant.
This is not about the party’s inability to live up to one of the most fundamental requirements of having good manners: Keeping the promises you make — in this case, the vow, incessantly repeated for seven years, that putting Republicans in charge would make repealing and replacing the 2010 health care law the first order of business.
Instead, this is about the breakdowns in interparty comity and institutional standards for fair play that helped push that promise near to oblivion.
The start can fairly be traced back to the night of Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. That was when McConnell waited less than 90 minutes after learning that Justice Antonin Scalia had died before transforming the period of mourning into the setting for a bold partisan power play.
In turning a moment for unexpected grieving into an opportunity for Machiavellian maneuvering, he tossed aside two centuries of precedent saying that every president — no matter that his party was different than the Senate majority, and especially one with a quarter of his term remaining — deserved the senatorial courtesy of a hearing and at least a committee vote for any high court nominee.
McConnell won his discourteous and bold bet: Holding the seat open and making the future of the judiciary a prime campaign issue helped Trump score the biggest upset in presidential election history and create the first all-GOP power structure in Washington in a decade.
And since rewarding ungentlemanly behavior will inevitably produce more of such conduct, it’s not surprising that a secretive, churlish and entirely-outside-the-normal-channels approach has, from the start, distinguished his balky and now repudiated tackling of the defining legislative battle of Trump’s first year.
Straightforward legislative etiquette would have required at least a few hearings and legislative markups on health care where Democrats could have gone on record in opposition and Republican skeptics, on the hard right and in the center, could have vented concerns and offered mollifying language — long before spreading anxieties at both ends of the GOP ideological spectrum crippled the bill.
And proper political politesse would have also had the top party bosses providing supportive cover to rank-and-file members before they got called on to cast votes destined to make their public lives more difficult.
But McConnell and, to a lesser extent Speaker Paul D. Ryan, did not succeed at the Hill leadership’s customary work of enlisting important trade associations, think tanks and other big-money advocates to get behind the GOP health care bill.
(Of course the president, for his part, hasn’t made any real effort to help Congress get to “yes” by taking the bully pulpit. There has been no Oval Office speech to the nation on behalf of the legislation, no town hall meeting and no rally in any on-the-fence senator’s home state devoted to the cause.)
Propriety in Congress has historically meant the leadership does not make members cast “tough” votes for no lasting reason — especially when defeat seems guaranteed, so going on the record can do harm back home without any chance of making progress toward new policy. But, at Trump’s insistence, the Senate is on course to vote this week on whether to open debate on the health care bill — a motion that will force more than half a dozen wavering but keeping-their-powder dry Republicans to take a stand with only the slimmest hope of producing anything meaningful in return.
Maybe this is an antiquated Republicans-at-their-country-club notion of manners, but it might have been courteous as well as savvy to invite at least one female senator in the initial GOP “working group” in search of a passable bill. Is it just coincidence that the three senators who came out quickest against McConnell most recent fallback — repeal now, replace later — were Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, each of whom has health care policy chops meriting a spot in those talks?
A consequence of all this discourteousness from the top is that Republicans one step down the food chain have felt free to act increasingly impertinent.
Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson has accused his own majority leader of “a pretty significant breach of trust” in the negotiations — fighting words in a business that’s still supposed to be regulated by handshakes and verbal assurances.
Mike Lee of Utah turned on his best friend and closest ideological soul mate at the Capitol, Ted Cruz of Texas, by voting to kill a bill reliant on Cruz’s unusual efforts at deal-making instead of conservative combat.
Lee and Jerry Moran of Kansas then decided to announce their opposition in the middle of a Trump’s steak and cobbler dinner with about half a dozen other senators — ignoring customary courtesies about informing your leader or the president of your own party before dropping a bad news bomb on them.
Trump had all GOP senators to lunch two days later, Lee and Moran included, a gesture toward comity quickly nullified by his awkwardly uncouth approach — “He wants to remain a senator, doesn't he?” — to the pivotal GOP senator seated next to him, Dean Heller of Nevada.
To top that off, the president kept the Republicans so long they all had to cancel their next collective meeting, a rude affront to none other than Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Just a dozen years ago, Howard Dean’s screaming exhortations after losing the Iowa caucuses were so collectively derided by the nation as ill-mannered that his presidential campaign crashed that night. This spring, Greg Gianforte’s patently offensive body-slamming of a reporter was so readily shrugged off by the voters in Montana that he won a seat in the House the next night.
Starting his State of the Union speech a decade ago, President George W. Bush bathed in warm bipartisan applause after striking the simplest of grace notes — declaring it a “distinct honor” to be the first president who got to address “Madam speaker” from the rostrum. Arriving for her husband’s first speech to Congress this winter, Melania Trump had to endure the sight of many Democrats declining to clap and slumping back into their seats at her introduction.
“In spite of the glamorization of outlaws and gangsters, people do not naturally think that their leaders should violate the standards to which they subscribe,” Judith Martin, the syndicated columnist Miss Manners, wrote in a February essay for The Atlantic on declining political etiquette. “We still pay obeisance to virtue. What has happened is that the virtues have been redefined.”
Confronted with the rare and awkward choice of siding with either a president of their party or a Cabinet member who’s a former colleague, Senate Republicans are sounding of single mind:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, until five months ago a senior GOP senator from Alabama, has done nothing to merit the upbraiding he’s been taking from President Donald Trump.
Being a former member of one of the most exclusive clubs in American politics, it seems, has privileges — including insulation from a wave of piling on when your job seems in jeopardy.
Conversations on Thursday with nine senators from across the Republican ideological spectrum, representing one-sixth of the party caucus, produced not a single critical word about their former colleague — let alone anyone willing to agree the president is justified in being angry that Sessions recused himself from the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“He’s a totally honorable man, a public servant who is trying to do the right thing,” Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska, a former attorney general of the state, said in a typical comment. “I respected the recusal decision when he made it and I still respect it now,” he added.
Asked if the president was being too harsh on Sessions, GOP conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota offered: “Well, what ‘I’ think is that the attorney general is doing a good job.”
The longest-tenured current GOP senator, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, said that while the recusal decision Sessions made in March was a close call, he’s done “a fine job” since and Trump’s unabated fury after so many months was out of all proportion.
“The president could have, and should have, been a bit more judicious, to use a word appropriate in this case,” Hatch said, adding: “Although, of course, that’s not really his way.”
The de facto votes of confidence on the Hill came as Sessions declared he would remain at the helm of the Justice Department “as long as that is appropriate,” despite Trump’s declaration the day before that he would not have nominated Sessions to that post had he known that he would recuse himself.
“Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself, which frankly I think is very unfair to the president,” Trump said during a sprawling interview with The New York Times. “How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, ‘Thanks, Jeff, but I’m not going to take you.’ It’s extremely unfair — and that’s a mild word — to the president.”
Asked Thursday at a news conference, arranged to announce arrests in an online narcotics sales case, whether he was considering resigning in the face of Trump’s criticisms, Sessions said, “The work we are doing today is the kind of work that we intend to continue,” adding, “I’m totally confident that we can continue to run this office in an effective way.”
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, a former attorney general of Texas, described Sessions as “doing just fine” and urged Trump to work to put their relationship back together. “They’re both adults and they can work it out.”
The president’s unabated fury is all the more perplexing to senators because of Sessions’ distinction as the first senator to endorse him, in February 2016 — a time when many GOP senators and House members were still openly repudiating the candidate who had won the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries and become the clear front-runner for the party’s nomination.
From that point through the convention, the fall campaign, the transition and the opening weeks of the administration, Sessions’ status seemed to be steadily elevated from best-friend-in-Congress to one of the few non-family members of Trumps’ innermost circle
But that changed with the recusal, which came after revelations that, in his Senate confirmation hearing, Sessions failed to disclose contacts with the Russian ambassador while advising the Trump campaign. His decision set in motion the series of decisions resulting in former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller’s appointment as special counsel.
One reason the senators sounded so unified in support of Sessions is that his dismissal or forced resignation would make life for every Republican in Congress much more difficult.
That’s because the nomination and confirmation of a replacement would be, more than anything, a referendum on Mueller’s inquiry, which is already reportedly looking into possibly improper interconnected behavior by members of the president’s family and his 2016 campaign operatives.
Special counsels report to the attorney general, who can veto such an official’s decisions, but are not supposed to provide close supervision. Given the Sessions recusal, Mueller is now reporting to Justice’s No. 2 official, Rod Rosenstein.
Were Sessions to be in need of replacement at the top, however, Mueller would get a new overseer only when Trump nominated someone who had secured Senate confirmation, meaning GOP senators would inevitably be pressed to take a clear position in support or skepticism of Mueller’s work.