Trump Scores His First Win in Congress

The president-elect wants an immediate say in how money is spent once he takes office, and Republicans are granting his wish.

Andrew Harnik / AP

It didn’t take long for President-elect Donald Trump to make his mark on legislation in Congress.

Republican leaders announced Thursday they would punt major spending decisions into 2017 in accordance with the incoming administration’s wishes. That means Congress plans to pass only a stopgap bill that will fund the federal government through March rather than an omnibus appropriations bill that would set spending priorities for the first eight months of Trump’s term.

“I think the new incoming government would like to have say-so on how money is going to be spent going into 2017,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters at a press conference. “We’ve got a lot of funding priorities that we would like to have changed relative to the Obama funding priorities. It’s as simple as that.”

Had Hillary Clinton won the presidency, Congress in all likelihood would have pushed harder to strike a big spending agreement in its lame-duck session, a move that would have cleared the way for her to focus on other legislative priorities during her first weeks in office. But Republicans know they will get a better deal with Trump than under President Obama, so they will keep spending levels as they are for another few months by passing a continuing resolution in the next few weeks.

The decision was made after Vice President-elect Mike Pence met with House Republicans on Thursday morning and conveyed the Trump transition team’s preference. It’s also a victory for conservatives who have fought against passing any major legislation in a lame-duck session, arguing that lawmaking are less accountable to voters when they act after the election but before the new Congress is seated. They were angry last year when Congress passed a $1.1 trillion spending bill just before Christmas with little time for debate.

For Ryan, the move additionally serves as political protection against a revolt that could threaten his reelection as speaker. While Republicans unanimously nominated him as their leader on Tuesday, a number of conservative members of the House Freedom Caucus warned that if Ryan either tried to pass an omnibus spending bill or approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the lame-duck session, they would vote against him during the formal House vote for speaker in early January. Both of those measures are now dead for the year.

The drawback for Trump is that he will now have to spend time and political capital on a debate over federal spending during his first months in office, at a time when he will be trying to get other items on his agenda through Congress. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi warned Republicans they might come to regret that decision. “I think they’re making a big mistake for themselves,” she said at her own press conference. “They’re going to have a kettle of fish in March that they can’t even imagine.”

Yet Republicans might have another reason for kicking the spending fight in 2017: It could allow them to roll back more regulations enacted by the Obama administration. Under the Congressional Review Act, the House and Senate can nullify major regulations with a simple majority vote if they act within 60 legislative days of the rule’s enactment. Simply passing a stopgap spending bill now would likely lead the GOP to adjourn Congress a few weeks earlier than planned. And that would stop the legislative clock and allow the House and Senate in January to repeal regulations that went into effect earlier in 2016. (Because Congress was out of session so often this year, the window of “60 legislative days” already stretches back to May.) According to an analysis by the conservative American Action Forum, Republicans would already be able to nullify 48 major regulations in January if Congress does not adjourn early, including rules expanding overtime pay, restricting personal drone use, curtailing drilling in the Arctic Shelf, and mandating significant changes to regulations on food labeling.

The GOP’s decision on Thursday, in other words, could have ramifications far beyond congressional spending.