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White House Turmoil, Party Divisions Slow GOP Agenda

Real Clear Politics logo Real Clear Politics 2/17/2017 James Arkin

© Provided by Real Clear Politics Disagreements within the GOP, unyielding Democratic opposition and turmoil at the White House have frustrated congressional Republicans' once-grand plans to quickly implement a sweeping conservative agenda in the age of President Donald Trump.

Republicans entered the new Congress in January with high hopes that a GOP president would lead to a swift reversal of the Obama administration's accomplishments and quick movement on key campaign promises, including the repeal, and then replacement, of the Affordable Care Act. They have scored some major wins early, historically rolling back several Obama-era rules and regulations, but remain on uncertain ground on other key legislative items.

Now, lawmakers head home for a weeklong recess, when many will encounter protests and grassroots activists rallying against that agenda. Then they return for a critical six-week period in Washington, when they will need to make quick progress on their agenda.

And while they continue coalesce around those legislative items, they must navigate a fraught political environment and a constant barrage of news from the White House that often knocks the party off its message. This week, the resignation of Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser and news reports that members of the Trump campaign may have communicated with Russia emboldened Democrats' calls for an independent investigation into Russia's meddling in the election, frustrating some congressional Republicans.

"It's no doubt a distraction, at a minimum," Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said this week. "We have a lot of work we need to do for the American people. Tax reform, health care reform … we've got infrastructure issues. Again, I think it is a distraction from work that needs to get done and that's why I think just a full airing of this, getting it behind us, would be a good thing."

Sen. Jeff Flake added it was "not helpful" to Republicans' agenda; his fellow Arizonan, Sen. John McCain, said it hadn't necessarily slowed their agenda, but that the message had changed and the political environment was "tumultuous."

"I think that most of our colleagues are concerned about keeping a clear-eyed focus on our legislative agenda," said Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking Republican. "We know full well there are issues that are going to come up on a daily basis that we're going to get asked about and have to respond to," he said, adding that Republican lawmakers should remain focused on legislative goals.

But so far, legislative activity has been relatively limited - in no small part due to Democratic opposition to Trump's Cabinet nominees. Ten of his Cabinet officials are in place, but five positions remain unconfirmed, and the president has signed just three laws, including a waiver to allow his defense secretary, a former general, to serve.

Republicans have cheered their ability to use the Congressional Review Act to roll back some of Obama's rules signed late in his term - including a financial regulation on energy companies and one designed to protect waterways from coal mine waste that they considered onerous and ineffective. Trump signed resolutions repealing both under the review law this week, which had only been used one time previously. The Senate passed a resolution repealing a third rule Thursday, and the House has passed more than a dozen others.

But beyond winding back regulations, major parts of the Republican legislative agenda remain unresolved. Early promises to swiftly repeal the Affordable Care Act were substituted by promises to pass a repeal-and-replacement at the same time, and key committee leaders have worked to iron out the details of their plan and get the rank-and-file members on board.

House Republicans huddled with newly sworn-in Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price Thursday morning - he met with Senate Republicans a day earlier - and Price, along with two committee chairmen, walked through some of the details. But there was not unanimity among the conference on several issues, including the structure of tax credits the plan uses, and how to handle states that expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act compared those that didn't.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a press conference after the meeting that House Republicans would unveil the legislative text of their repeal-and-replace plan after the President's Day recess - though he did not specify precisely when, saying the plan would need to be evaluated by the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation. Ryan has promised action in the House by the end of March.

Rep. Mark Walker, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of House conservatives, said it was a "super large task" to meet early deadlines for their health care work to be complete.

"We're getting there, we're getting closer," Walker said. "This is our window of opportunity to get this right, so we must get it right."

While there is some frustration about the lingering questions and slow movement on heath care, the bigger problem for Republicans has been in the upper chamber. Democrats, frustrated by Trump's early actions in office and angered by some of his Cabinet appointments, have dragged out the process of filling Trump's administration while demanding more comprehensive vetting of the nominees. Republicans in the upper chamber mostly blame the slowness on the minority.

Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican, said Democrats were "sabotaging" the administration by blocking his Cabinet nominees.

Added Thune: "We're trying to do big, bold things. It's an agenda that's very impactful, but hard to accomplish. And in this environment right now, where there's as much hostility, that makes it even harder."

But Thune and other Republicans admitted that even without Democratic opposition or problems at the White House, their agenda would still face complications.

Beyond the disagreements on Obamacare, there is uncertainty about a major component of the House tax reform plan, which is expected to be the biggest legislative item in Congress once health care is completed. House members have introduced a plan including border adjustability - taxing imports at 20 percent while not taxing exports. House leaders have insisted comprehensive reform must include the proposal, but several GOP senators have already laid out serious concerns. Tax reform is a herculean task in Congress, and while early disagreements haven't stalled the action, they foreshadow a legislative slog.

"A lot of congealing … is going to have to occur for us to move ahead," Corker said, adding that there was "not a lot of consolidation" around health care or taxes. He cautioned that it's still mid-February, and that he wasn't overly concerned just yet.

"We do have a lot of differing views here on these topics and in order to move ahead, we've got to consolidate those," he said. "We don't have much room for error."

Flake called some of the early disagreements "concerning" for the Republicans' agenda. "Having unified government really only helps if both chambers and the White House are working in concert," he said. "This makes it more difficult."

Rep. Mark Sanford said that Republicans are facing down a "political chasm" as they talk with constituents next week and return to Washington to move their agenda forward. On the one hand, their base demands swift action after substantial campaign promises going back six years. On the other, many voters are "fearful of what might come, what might change, and its implications on their lives."

"The gulf between those two is going to represent a fairly perilous cavern, in political terms, that people are going to be skittish about," Sanford said.

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