It Doesn't Get Any Easier for Republicans Now

President Trump may feel liberated to pursue tax reform after the failure on health care. But the GOP’s to-do list in Congress only gets harder from here.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

“In a way I’m glad I got it out of the way,” President Trump told the Washington Post last week in the moments after he and Republican leaders in Congress pulled the plug on their first major legislative priority, repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.

Health care was hard. Really hard. “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” the president had said in a now-infamous quote. The health-care legislation was pulled without a vote last week after House Speaker Paul Ryan told the president there were not enough votes from Republicans to pass it.

The implication of Trump’s musings about the difficulty of passing complicated health-care legislation is that he believes the rest of his agenda will be much easier. Tax cuts? Everybody like tax cuts. The legendary border wall. More defense spending. A big, bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Moving on from the American Health Care Act now liberates Trump to pursue the promises he’s truly passionate about, the items that drew the loudest cheers at his campaign rallies last year. Yet Republicans in Congress don’t see it that way, and for good reason: Passage of the health-care legislation was supposed to lay the groundwork and build momentum for a series of even tougher negotiation and votes to come. That to-do list is longer and less sexy than the president’s agenda, and it includes a few items—like funding the government and raising the debt ceiling—where Republicans don’t have the luxury of failure. And unlike the health care push, most of the upcoming legislative battles will require support from Democrats.

Funding the Government

Congress has just over a month to pass some sort of spending bill to avoid a shutdown of the federal government on April 29. But the window is actually much shorter than that, because the House and Senate are scheduled to take a two-week recess for Easter in the middle of the month. Once lawmakers return, they’ll have just a week to strike a deal and pass a bill that would cover the rest of the fiscal year that ends on September 30.

Any legislation would be subject to a 60-vote threshold in the Senate, giving Democrats significant leverage in negotiations. While there have been discussions about an omnibus appropriations bill, the likeliest outcome is a continuing resolution that would maintain spending levels set during the final budget agreement of the Obama administration. But once the two parties agree on money, there may be a fight over policy. Conservatives, for example, are expected to push to defund Planned Parenthood, which party leaders had hoped would be taken care of in the health-care bill. That effort could force Trump to take sides between the Freedom Caucus and Democrats who have fought to protect the women’s health nonprofit. And moderate Republicans have already grown wary of injecting the politics of abortion and contraception into spending debates.

With Republicans in power, Democrats could be in the position of shutting down the government by blocking legislation in the Senate. But emboldened by the GOP’s divisions and Trump’s low approval ratings, they may gamble that the public would be more likely to associate a shutdown with the party that has historically been more antagonistic toward government.

Paying for the Border Wall

As part of the short-term funding debate, Trump has asked Congress for an immediate appropriation of $30 billion to boost defense spending and another $3 billion to start construction of the wall along the border with Mexico. And he wants lawmakers to find $18 billion in cuts to domestic agencies to offset the new spending.

The president might get some money for the military, but Democrats (and some Republicans) have already signaled they’ll put up a fight on the border wall and domestic budget cuts. “It shouldn’t be rammed down people’s throats,” Schumer said Sunday on ABC’s This Week. The Democratic leader has already started needling Trump about the fact that he’s asking taxpayers to fund the wall when he assured voters that Mexico would fork over the money. (Mexico will ultimately pay the bill in some form, the White House has been saying lately.)

And as Schumer pointed out, a number of Republicans representing districts along the border have begun speaking out against Trump’s proposal, noting that a wall doesn’t make sense in certain geographical areas and that the government would need to assert eminent domain and seize private property in other places. “My prediction,” Schumer said, “it wouldn't get the votes on either the Democratic or Republican side.”

Passing a 2018 Budget

Trump’s “skinny budget” landed with a thud on Capitol Hill earlier this month. Republican defense hawks wanted even higher spending for the Pentagon, fiscal conservatives were disappointed with a lack of entitlement reform, and a range of GOP lawmakers opposed the steep cuts to popular domestic programs that Trump proposed.

Republicans are free to ignore the White House’s longer budget proposal when it comes out in May—the budget is a resolution that Congress passes but the president does not sign. But GOP lawmakers still need to agree on their own budget proposal to set in motion the procedural mechanism for their more ambitious desire to rewrite the tax code. As with health care, Republicans want to use the reconciliation process to circumvent a Democratic filibuster of tax reform in the Senate, and passing a 2018 budget resolution is a necessary first step.

Enacting Tax Reform

This is the president’s new obsession. As the health-care bill was teetering in Congress, Trump began hinting to anyone who’d listen that he was even more excited about tax reform, that it was an easier political lift, that he would have started out with that if his advisers and congressional leaders hadn’t insisted for complicated procedural reasons that health care come first. “I would have loved to have put it first. I’ll be honest,” Trump said at a rally in Tennessee. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said as recently as last week that tax reform would “much simpler” than repealing and replacing Obamacare.

In fact, most Republicans in Congress believe the opposite is true. Overhauling the tax code affects every industry in America and is expected to touch off an unprecedented frenzy of lobbying, as interest groups and trade associations fight for the loopholes and provisions that their businesses rely on. Divisions have already broken out between House and Senate Republicans over a centerpiece of Speaker Paul Ryan’s proposal—a “border adjustment tax” that would generate $1 trillion in revenue to finance rate reductions but which many Republicans worry will translate into higher retail costs for consumers.

And the GOP’s failure on health care has only made tax reform harder, because legislators were counting on the tax-and-spending cuts in the American Health Care Act to give them more room in the budget to slash rates without blowing up the deficit. The consequence is that Republicans likely won’t be able to cut rates as deeply—if they are able to get agreement at all. “Yes, this does make tax reform more difficult, but it does not in any way make it impossible,” Ryan told reporters as he conceded defeat on health care last week.

Raising the Debt Ceiling

The biggest fiscal showdown of the Obama years came in the summer of 2011, when House Republicans took the country to the brink of a first-ever default by refusing to raise the debt ceiling. The two parties struck a last-minute deal, but thereafter Republicans only agreed to authorize more debt if Democrats provided the bulk of the votes in Congress.

Now that the GOP has unified control of the government, it is the Trump administration asking Congress to raise the debt limit. Mnuchin formally made the request to congressional leaders in a letter earlier this month, informing them that, as is customary, the Treasury Department would resort to “extraordinary measures” to pay the nation’s bills as long as it could in the meantime. Budget analysts expect the department to be able to buy time at least until summer, but at some point, Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell know they’ll be in for a tough vote.

They will undoubtedly need help from Democrats, who might make the GOP’s job easier by not asking for anything in return. “[We] are making it clear to the administration that we want a clean lifting of the debt ceiling,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told Politico a few weeks ago.

White House officials have said in recent days that Trump wants to work with Democrats, though it’s not yet clear how serious they are about forging a new bipartisan approach. Outreach to the opposition could be a way to isolate the hardline House Freedom Caucus and pressure them to compromise. But with Trump’s approval rating plummeting and his own party seemingly in disarray, Democrats may have even less incentive to bail the president out.

“We all learned a lot,” the president told reporters last week after he agreed to abandon the health-care bill. “We learned a lot about loyalty. We learned a lot about the vote-getting process.” As Republicans embark on a tough road ahead in the next few months, Trump will have plenty of opportunities to prove it.