The tax overhaul can wait, and it’s going to have to.
For the Republican government that so phenomenally flopped its first big attempt at policymaking, a much more basic test of governance looms in the next month — and another failure seems hardly a politically acceptable option.
But the same dynamic at the heart of the health care bill’s death last week, the hardening factionalization of the congressional GOP, shows no signs of changing in the month until Zero Hour for yet another partial government shutdown.
And that’s far from the only complicating factor for President Donald Trump and the Hill leadership as they seek to accomplish their most elemental task, assuring uninterrupted functioning of most government offices and programs by making sure they have continuous access to taxpayer money.
The current hodgepodge stopgap spending law expires at midnight April 28. Thanks to the coming two-week congressional spring recess, that leaves just 13 legislative working days after Tuesday to enact another continuing resolution or else absorb the nation’s rage — not to mention a financial market swoon — at the inconveniences and global embarrassment wrought by more gridlock and incompetence.
April 29 is a Saturday, so the doors to most federal agencies will be closed anyway, but if national parks are padlocked and passport services suspended then it will be lost on nobody who’s inconvenienced that it’s also the 100th day of Trump’s presidency.
That’s the surest reason the White House is eager to quickly divine and then apply some lessons from last week’s collapse of the Obamacare replacement legislation, after it was spurned by all the House’s Democrats and about 15 percent of its Republicans — at least a score from the confrontationally conservative Freedom Caucus and almost as many from what remains of the somewhat moderate niche.
Speaker Paul D. Ryan, who just suffered the most embarrassing setback since taking the House’s top job 18 months ago, is just as vitally interested as his compulsory partner the president in avoiding a shutdown showdown.
Same goes for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Since it’s looking ever more likely he’ll have to further eviscerate the filibuster rules in order to get Judge Neil Gorsuch confirmed to the Supreme Court before the recess, he’ll be especially eager to put an easy, bipartisan cast on the first senatorial business after the break.
But the vote-counting math they’re all confronting still does not match their collective desire to make it look easy when passing their first governing test of 2017, albeit on their second try.
Finishing the spending package, which will presumably keep the government funded to the end of fiscal 2017 in September, is absolutely a precondition for starting the more headline-worthy work ahead — adoption of another budget resolution that would pave the way for the biggest rewrite of the tax code in three decades
Although there’s minimal evidence of any substantive work on the interim spending package, that apparent procrastination may be a good thing.
That’s because it means the bill can be drafted from the outset to command support from most House members (because of vacancies, 216 is the magic number for assuring victory) and a filibuster-proof majority of 60 senators.
But which members?
If Trump and the majority leadership seek to get the bill through the House with only Republican votes, that means counting on 91-percent party unity. But is there a funding prescription that won’t be spurned, as the health care bill was, not only by a nearly dispositive bloc on the far right but also by some in the center?
And even if an elusive formula is found that commands sufficient all-Republican support in the House, what reason is there to believe any Democratic senator (let alone eight of them) will get it over its inevitable filibuster hurdle?
“They’ve got to re-examine how they’re trying to govern,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer told reporters Friday. “They can’t govern from an ideological perspective, the hard-right ideological perspective. It’s just not going to work.”
But what if the drafters’ choose to take Schumer’s advice and ignore the very-difficult-to-meet demands of the House Freedom Caucus and their confrontational allies in the Senate? That means writing a bill that could first pass with about 200 or so House GOP mainstreamers finding common cause with 20 or so Democratic moderates — then getting through the Senate with perhaps no more than 45 GOP votes supplemented by at least 15 Democrats.
And that’s a very ambitious level of bipartisanship to assume given the degree to which House Democrats are delighting in their triumph from saying a unanimous “no” to the Trump health care agenda — and how angry Senate Democrats are sure to be if their blockade of Gorsuch is broken through use of the “nuclear option.”
Whatever course Trump, Ryan and McConnell agree on, it seems very likely to begin with this decision: The internal GOP ideological schisms, and the unilateral Democratic opposition, make it fruitless to pursue what the president said he wanted from the midyear bill: $33 billion in extra funding for the military and border security, offset with $18 billion in unspecified cuts to nondefense programs.
All Democrats, but plenty of Republicans as well, object to any reduction in domestic spending for the current year, which is already halfway over. All Democrats, but plenty of Republicans as well, object to raising the statutory cap on military spending without doing the same for nondefense spending.
Some Republicans say the boost for the military is insufficient, but at least as many view it as unnecessarily generous in light of their commitment to fiscal restraint. And they probably have the votes to prevent any skirting of congressional accounting rules to decree that this year’s Pentagon boost would not count toward the budget caps. (When he was in the House, a leading opponent of such budgetary gimmickry was Mick Mulvaney, now Trump’s budget office director .)
Starting his Mexican border wall was the presidential campaign promise Trump most aspired to fulfill with the midyear spending bill. But the $3 billion he sought for construction, and for enhanced immigration enforcement, is running into not only unified Democratic resistance but skepticism from some top Republicans as well, starting with Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas and including the new House Appropriations chairman, Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, who was the most senior person in GOP authority to announce against the health care bill
An appropriations behemoth like this one, because of its “must pass” pedigree, is bound to become a magnet for rifle-shot policy riders. But each one that’s able to hitch a ride in this CR will freight it down considerably — none more so than the guaranteed effort by conservatives to resurrect their language defunding Planned Parenthood, which was part of the doomed health care bill.
In the end, the best hope for Trump may be to rely on the Republicans who assembled the current CR, a relatively straightforward extension of existing policies that sailed through Congress with relatively little fuss — and with a remarkable degree of bipartisan support. Three-quarters of Republicans backed it in the House and Senate, but so did two-thirds of the House Democrats and half the Senate Democrats.