The new chairman of the Republican Study Committee said Thursday that conservatives could clash with President-elect Donald Trump early in his administration on infrastructure spending and on the debt ceiling.
In an interview for C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” scheduled to air Sunday, North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker said it is incumbent upon Congress to work with the incoming administration but that there will likely be some differences of opinion.
“I don’t know that everything is going to be Pollyanna or pie in the sky, and those are times that we’re going to have to have real discussion as far as which direction that we maybe want to go,” he said.
One issue almost certain to trigger such discussions is infrastructure spending. Trump campaigned on promises to pour $1 trillion into infrastructure improvements — a figure that exceeds conservatives’ comfort zone. Trump’s team has provided few details about where the money would go.
“I don’t know that we’ve all settled on $1 trillion, even the administration,” Walker said.
Without trying to anticipate what Trump’s infrastructure proposal will look like, he said, “If it’s $1 trillion in infrastructure, that is something that we would have to say, ‘There’s a portion of this that we’re not comfortable with and come back to the table.’ As the legislative body, that is still our job.”
Another issue on which conservatives may disagree with the administration is the debt ceiling, Walker said. The current suspension of the debt ceiling will expire in March.
“Both myself and the RSC, we’re going to take some strong positions when it comes to raising the debt ceiling. And I hope that we’re able to put [out] a long-term solution,” he said. “What I’ve realized in Washington [is] that if you wait to the moment that it’s time to vote or to deal with something, most of the time that’s way too late.”
Walker said the RSC has meetings scheduled this month to begin discussions on how to ensure the government statutory borrowing authority isn’t automatically raised.
Urgency on health care law replacement
The RSC’s early start on the debt ceiling issue is in line with the urgency the second-term lawmaker has already shown on other matters. On the second day of the 115th Congress, the group unveiled its plan to replace the 2010 health care law.
Walker said he does not expect the proposal — which is similar to replacement plans offered up in previous years — to be the “end-all” but he feels it’s important for Republicans to start fighting back against the narrative that they don’t have a replacement.
The RSC replacement plan includes a two-year transition (with some exceptions) from the policies of the health care law that Republicans plan to repeal, but Walker said he’d like to see a replacement enacted sooner.
“I think the consensus is sometime this year to be able to have some kind of position to move forward,” he said. “I’ve heard two, three, four years. I believe in following through with our promise [to] the American people, I believe it needs to happen in this calendar year.”
Walker’s replacement timeline is in line with the position of Rep. Mark Meadows, the House Freedom Caucus chairman. Meadows, also a North Carolina Republican, has said a replacement needs to be enacted during the 115th Congress, ideally before the health care law’s fall enrollment period.
The agreement between Walker and Meadows creates an opening for the House’s two conservative caucuses to work together and advocate for common goals.
The Freedom Caucus was formed two years ago by members who felt the RSC was not effective in pushing for conservative policy. While some of their members remain in the RSC, many left the group. Despite that, Walker contends there’s no bad blood among the conservatives.
“I don’t know that we have an adversarial problem with the Freedom Caucus,” said Walker, who beat Freedom Caucus member Andy Harris of Maryland to become RSC chairman. “In fact, many of the Freedom Caucus [members that] remain in the RSC voted for us in the recent chairmanship race.”
Walker, 47, said he sees the RSC’s role as “arbitrator” and that to be effective, the group not only needs to advocate for good policy — it needs to do so with the right approach and right voice.
During the chairman’s race, he said he shared with his colleagues an old commercial for Corn Flakes that closes with the line, “Taste them again for the first time.” In expressing his vision for conservatives, Walker has turned that line into, “Hear us again for the first time.”
The challenge isn’t taking the message to the base, Walker said. “That is the easy path. … The real burden or the challenge or the opportunity [is] to take that to new communities, to new generations. When you do so, you have to be careful in using what I call tired or worn-out rhetoric.”
‘Not the time for earmarks’
One phrase that seems to be registering with many communities is “drain the swap.” Walker used it during Thursday’s interview when he spoke about the “need to be careful about bringing back the way Congress used to do business,” in reference to recent debates over overhauling the independent Office of Congressional Ethics and reinstating earmarks.
In both cases, a majority of Republicans appear to want to make a change but the discussions have been tabled over concerns about timing and decisions being made behind closed doors.
Speaker Paul D. Ryan has vowed that the House will revisit the earmark debate in the first quarter of this year.
“Personally, and I also believe the position of the RSC is against earmarks,” Walker said, citing a history of corruption and abuse.
With the new Republican Congress and incoming administration trying to show honesty and transparency in following through on their campaign promises, Walker said, “This is not the time for earmarks to return.”