On the day after the election, House Speaker Paul Ryan was like a kid on Christmas morning – eager to unwrap a GOP agenda now that voters have given Donald Trump a mandate and kept Republicans in control of Congress. His eyes and voice lit up with excitement as he promised to “hit the ground running” and “to go big, to go bold.”
Over in the Senate, Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell was also cheery, in his taciturn sort of way. The Kentuckian is looking forward to working with a President Trump on a Supreme Court nominee, tax reform, and border security.
But he threw out this caution in answer to a reporter’s question about the early Obama administration’s unilateral moves on issues such as health care: Don’t overreach, or you may face electoral defeat, as President Obama did when Republicans took over the House in 2010.
“I think it’s always a mistake to misread your mandate. And frequently, new majorities think it’s going to be forever,” Senator McConnell said. Republicans have been given a temporary lease on power, with the next election only two years away. Americans want results, he said, and to get those in the Senate – where a 60-vote threshold is now the norm to pass any major legislation – some Democratic cooperation will be needed.
“We are going to be looking for bipartisan support,” he said.
Call for pragmatists
The president-elect can come to Capitol Hill, as he did on Thursday, and sing in harmony with the GOP leadership about his priorities: jobs, immigration, repealing Obamacare, and taxes. But implementing the details of any plans will require coalition building – within the GOP, and with Democrats. That’s where the “pragmatists” in both parties in Congress (they don’t always fit the “moderate” label) will have an important role to play. They can act as bridge-builders but also as a check on the new administration.
With the Senate having lost two Republicans, giving them a narrower 52-48 margin, McConnell will have to win over more Democrats to overcome any threatened filibusters, points out Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, one of several congressional pragmatists interviewed by the Monitor since the election.
“I believe that the majority leader was trying to dampen expectations somewhat because the legislative process is still like making sausage, and we still have to go through the deliberative process, which is neither easy nor quick even when one party is in control of the White House and the legislative branch,” says Senator Collins, who wrote in Paul Ryan’s name for president on Election Day.
The senator says that in her talks with other Republicans, there is some concern that Americans will expect that absent divided government, Congress will now be able to immediately pass a wide range of reforms “and fix all that is wrong, quickly.”
But it’s going to take “some time” do something like tax reform, even if there’s broad agreement on the goals of a fairer, simpler, pro-growth tax code, she adds. “That’s an enormously complex issue.” She suggests starting with something that has bipartisan support – infrastructure.
True, Trump doesn’t need Congress to carry out all of his promises. For instance, he can simply not push the negotiated Pacific trade deal, strike President Obama’s executive order granting deportation relief for children of illegal immigrants, and undo regulations relating to climate change. He can, and is expected to, significantly reshape the Justice Department and other government agencies.
And the new administration will have an easier time getting confirmation for judges and agency appointees, since retiring Democratic minority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada struck the blocking filibuster procedure for all executive nominees except the Supreme Court.
Whether the filibuster will eventually disappear for Supreme Court nominees is still unclear. McConnell wouldn’t speculate on the subject when asked at his press conference on Wednesday, and said simply that the nomination will be approached the way it is “typically handled.” He added that he “would not anticipate any particular strategy” in the way Democrats may seek to block an appointment or Republicans might react.
On a high GOP priority such as repealing the Affordable Care Act, Republicans can use a budget maneuver called “reconciliation” to gut the budget-related parts of the law and pass it with only a majority vote in both houses. Indeed, they did this last year, sun-setting the act’s subsidies and Medicaid expansion in 2017, but President Obama vetoed it.
With a President Trump, they could quickly repeat the process, using an extended expiration time for the provisions to work out their replacement. But that replacement would likely need Democratic cooperation to pass the Senate – unless they use the reconciliation maneuver.
Democrats such as Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware – who worked on several bipartisan bills that became law this year – say they will stand their ground to defend their values and Americans’ civil liberties, but they are ready to work with Republicans, including on the Affordable Care Act.
“If we found a way to move forward together … with a range of options at the state level that allowed those states that have embraced the ACA to continue, and allowed those that have fought it or where it doesn’t work well for them to achieve similar goals, that’s a constructive conversation we should be willing to have,” he says.
But if Republicans are only trying to repeal without serious replacement, they will face a severe backlash from “millions of angry Americans who will lose access to health care.”
Senator Collins anticipates “a major rewrite” of the law that retains the good parts, throws out the unworkable parts, and comes up with new approaches – including an option for states that like the law to stick with it.
Over in the House, Speaker Ryan and his GOP colleagues have agreed on a series of priorities including repealing and replacing the ACA, tax reform, lifting people out of poverty, and strengthening the economy and national security. It’s laid out in his “A Better Way” agenda – but it’s not in legislative language, and that’s a sticking point.
The legislative details could spark divisions among the famously fractious House Republicans – as could some of Trump’s big plans for investing in infrastructure (read “costly”), which appeals to Democrats and many Republicans, or his expensive wall, which Democrats strongly oppose.
Both Ryan and McConnell stayed away from the “wall” rhetoric this week, agreeing instead that the country needed enhanced “border security,” which includes “physical barriers” as well as interior enforcement, according to Ryan.
A key Republican pragmatist in the House, Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, who leads the governing-minded “Tuesday Group,” says he hopes that Trump will prove to be a pragmatist who can help unite the ideologically divided Republicans. Congressman Dent was no Trump supporter, but he says he doesn’t believe Trump will want to engage in “ideological purity tests,” and that’s a good thing.
The congressman likes the unifying message that Trump set in his acceptance speech: “I hope what Donald Trump means by that is that he wants to govern in a fairly pragmatic way … that would include bringing in Democrats, independents, and others to solve problems.”
Dent says he’ll work with the new president, but if Trump’s aims are “not in the best interest” of Americans, he’ll act as a “check” on him.
That can be expected of other Republicans, such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the hawkish chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Senator McCain fiercely opposes water-boarding torture, which Trump has promised to reinstate.
Other Trumpisms were also rejected by McConnell. He won’t be introducing term limits in the Senate, and he clearly backed the NATO alliance. “I want the Russians to understand that fully,” he said at his press conference.