BALTIMORE — House Republicans are embracing President Donald Trump as a critical asset in their effort to win back the majority in 2020 and are building their policy agenda and campaign strategy around him.
During a 48-hour retreat here Thursday through Saturday, GOP lawmakers lauded Trump for helping them win a North Carolina special election and said they looked forward to riding his coattails in districts across the country next year.
“We can go into all of those districts that we lost — so many of them President Trump won the 2016 that I think he’ll do even better in in 2020,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise said. The Louisiana Republican said he’s seen the enthusiasm for Trump firsthand in recent travels to swing districts around the country.
The GOP plans to play up the contrast between the Democratic Party “that is really in the throes of the socialists” and three years of successful Trump policies, House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney said.
“We’re going to be in a position where we’re able to take back the House. We’re going to keep the Senate. And we know we’re going to get the president reelected,” added the Wyoming Republican, who is considering a Senate bid.
GOP leaders kept referring back to last week’s two special election victories in North Carolina — particularly Dan Bishop winning a competitive race in the 9th District — as evidence of what they can accomplish in 2020. They credited Trump, who held an election eve rally in the 9th District, with driving GOP turnout.
“President Trump is out there leading and he has created a different coalition that not only got him in the White House but is building in other parts of the country. If he’s turning out those voters, as it appears he was able to do in North Carolina, that has remarkable power,” said Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, who led the National Republican Campaign Committee during the 2016 cycle.
Since their retreat kicked off on the night of the latest Democratic presidential debate, Republicans also used that as fodder for highlighting the differences between the two parties.
“I never heard them talk about the economy,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said, suggesting that was because “the economy is so strong [and] the Democrats didn’t have that much to do with it.”
Historically, the party in the White House picks up seats in the race for a president’s second term, and House Democrats will be tied to their presidential nominee this cycle, Walden noted.
“You’re going to have House Democrats having to answer, ‘Are they for full government taxpayer funded health care for people who aren’t here legally? Are they for these things that their top leaders on the stage are for?’” he said.
As Republicans talked about the policies they plan to campaign on in 2020, they often described plans to work in tandem with Trump. That includes finishing a health care overhaul they fumbled in 2017, more tax cuts for middle-income families, and border protection and refining the immigration system.
Trump came up here Thursday evening to address the GOP retreat, recounting accomplishments from his first two years and listing things he’d still like to accomplish with congressional Republicans.
“We’re working on a tax cut for the middle-income people,” he said. “That is going to be very, very inspirational. It’s going to be something that I think it’s what everyone is really looking for. And we’ll be announcing it sometime in the next year.”
Ways and Means ranking member Kevin Brady, who is working with Trump on that tax proposal, said Republicans first want to make permanent the individual tax cuts they passed in the 2017 law. To keep the cost under the $1.5 trillion cap set by the budget reconciliation instructions they used, Republicans had the individual rate cuts and tax incentives in the measure sunset in 2025.
“Secondly, we believe that there is an opportunity for more middle-class tax cuts,” Brady said, alluding to a number of “pretty exciting proposals” without specifying details.
The Texas Republican said he and the White House had worked on legislation they had planned to advance had the GOP kept its House majority in 2018. Republicans never released that proposal, which was often referred to as “Tax cuts 2.0.”
Using that phrase, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow — making an appearance at the retreat — told reporters a plan is in the works that the administration hopes to release around the middle of next year. If that timeline holds, the White House and congressional Republicans will be selling a middle-class tax cut in the lead-up to the 2020 election.
Efforts to implement a second tax cut could be complicated by another goal that McCarthy laid out — tackling the deficit. He said it would be top of the GOP agenda if they retake the House.
Any tax cut would slash federal revenues if not offset, but Republicans didn’t seem worried about that. Rather, they want to reduce the deficit by cutting spending, with McCarthy saying the GOP would lower discretionary spending and tackle mandatory spending through changes to entitlement programs.
Trump, however, has not yet embraced the idea and made no mention of spending cuts when speaking to Republicans on Thursday night.
Health care redo
On health care — an issue that dogged the GOP in the 2018 midterms — Trump and House Republicans vowed to take another shot at overhauling the health care system should they win the House next year.
House Republicans are working to draw a stark contrast between their health care policies and the range of Democratic “Medicare for All” proposals that have overtaken health care policy discourse.
“We’re going to work on improving the system we have today — keeping what’s working, fixing what’s broken — not throwing all that away and starting over with a one-size-fits-all health care plan, where the control is from Washington,” said Walden, the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Republicans hope a bipartisan fix to curb the practice of surprise medical billing can be enacted before the 2020 election, but if not, it is near the top of their priorities list for next Congress.
Walden said they plan to investigate the practice of private equity companies buying medical practices, pulling doctors out of insurance networks and then billing patients for the higher out-of-network rates.
Surprise billing and prescription drug pricing legislation are issues Republicans can tout regardless of their fate this Congress. If bipartisan legislation advances, they can show they are able to work with Democrats. If the measures languish, they can point the blame at the House Democratic majority.
“We’re putting consumers first on surprise billing,” Walden said.
McCarthy outlined other issues Republicans plan to focus on, including immigration, the rising cost of college, privacy rights and environmental challenges.
He warned of dire economic consequences of the Democrats’ Green New Deal proposal and suggested their party’s environmental policies aren’t getting to the heart of the issues.
“California wants to remove the plastic straw; we want to move plastics from the ocean,” he said. “Ninety percent of all the plastic that goes into the ocean today comes from 10 rivers in the world, and not one of them is in America. But we can still do something about it.”
House Republicans are also looking at how technology is changing the way of life around the world and at threats to privacy. McCarthy said consumers should know exactly what data internet companies are collecting on users and if they want to monetize it, consumers should get a slice.
“We should be able to move our own data and we should be able to delete our own data,” he added.
Vice President Mike Pence, who spoke at the retreat Friday, encouraged Republicans to not just attack Democrats’ ideas but to clearly lay out their policy agenda for voters.
“The best is yet to come, and we’ve got to put out that positive vision,” he said.