What isn’t on McConnell’s list is welfare or entitlement reform. “I think the Democrats are not going to be interested in entitlement reform, so I would not expect to see that on the agenda,” he told Mike Allen of Axios last week. During a year-end press conference the next day, he told reporters that “the sensitivity of entitlements is such that you almost have to have a bipartisan agreement in order to achieve a result.”
McConnell’s declaration was important because it appeared to rule out using the same partisan, budget reconciliation process that Republicans used on health care and taxes to try to ram through changes to Medicaid and food stamps. The GOP will have one more crack at reconciliation—which circumvents the Senate’s 60-vote threshold to defeat a filibuster—before the 2018 elections, and a coalition of major conservative groups is gearing up to pressure party leaders to reserve that tool for entitlement reform and another stab at repealing Obamacare, according to a senior GOP aide to a conservative House member who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a strategy that hasn’t yet been formally announced.
A likely pivot from tax cuts to spending cuts was the great fear of Democrats who opposed the Republican tax bill on the grounds that it was just the opening gambit of a party intent on “starving the beast” and using a reduction in tax revenue as justification to shrink the social safety net. But conservatives have been open about their desire to reduce the size and scope of the federal government. Before unveiling the GOP tax bill in the fall, Ryan secured the support of conservatives for the Senate’s budget resolution—which ignored a House proposal for $200 billion in additional spending cuts—by promising them that in 2018, they’d have the opportunity to vote both on “deficit-reducing legislation” and a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.
McConnell’s reluctance to tackle welfare and entitlements is less about a disagreement on policy than it is a frank assessment of his thinning ranks. It was hard enough for him to marshal 50 out of 52 Senate Republicans to support repealing Obamacare and slashing taxes, and he only succeeded on one of those missions. In 2018, the GOP will have just a 51-49 majority, thanks to the imminent arrival of Doug Jones, the Democrat who captured a Senate seat in Alabama earlier this month. For the same reason, McConnell has been downplaying the likelihood that Republicans will take another run at Obamacare repeal, if for no other reason than since they couldn’t do it with 52 votes, it’s foolish to think they could do it with 51.
Ryan’s prerogatives are different: He may be entering his final year as speaker, whether by his own choice or that of the voters. While the Wisconsinite has dismissed speculation that he would leave Congress in the immediate aftermath of his tax-cut victory, he has notably not issued the same denial about a possible retirement after the 2018 elections. In media interviews last week, Ryan said he had not even talked with his wife about running for reelection. But with the House majority in jeopardy anyway, the speaker and his members know that unified Republican control in Washington might well be fleeting. “Conservatives see this as the last, best chance,” the GOP aide said.