Sen. David Perdue persuaded Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last week to scrap two weeks of August recess to advance President Donald Trump’s agenda. But since then, the GOP’s Obamacare repeal effort has almost entirely collapsed — and the Republican to-do list remains just as long.
“We haven’t started the debt ceiling; we have to fund the government; we have to do the budget,” the Georgia Republican said. “I’m the one counting the days. I’m very nervous."
Republicans are plainly struggling to follow through on long-held campaign promises, with the plan to repeal and replace Obamacare the most prominent piece of the GOP’s stalled agenda.
A long-delayed GOP budget is on the rocks in the House because of internal divisions — a disagreement that threatens to derail tax reform. House GOP leaders have also scaled back a sweeping spending plan full of red meat for the base, infuriating rank-and-file members who wanted something bigger to take home to constituents. And the House and Senate are nowhere near a plan to avoid a federal default.
“We’re in some quicksand right now. We just can’t seem to free ourselves,” said Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.).
Trump, meanwhile, is starting to get angry, berating GOP senators for failing to repeal the 2010 health care law and demanding they stay in session until Obamacare is repealed. But some lawmakers are even starting to blame Trump for his handling of the Russia probe, Twitter feuds and attacks on the media.
"I don’t even pay any attention to what is going on with the administration because I don’t care. They’re a distraction. The family is a distraction, the president is a distraction," complained Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho). "At first, it was ‘Well yeah, this is the guy we elected. He’ll learn, he’ll learn.’ And you just don’t see that happening."
With their legislative achievement list short, some GOP lawmakers are making a last-ditch effort to put some points on the board before summer break. On Wednesday, for instance, Republican senators called an emergency meeting to try to save their health care bill. In the House, conservatives have started talking about a repeal-only vote of their own, hoping to go on record on the issue before they head back to their districts.
Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker said the conservative group’s Wednesday meeting “was basically a vent session, with a new level of frustration: health care, budget, thinking we could do all these appropriations and now finding out we’re going to do a security ‘mini-bus’” instead.
“If I was a constituent, I would be pressing for a whole lot more,” the North Carolina Republican said.
Some senators are also re-evaluating their tactics to ease the passage of tax reform and some are mulling a bipartisan fix on health care. Others are just praying that the House spending package set for floor consideration next week — which would fund Trump’s border wall with Mexico and give the Pentagon a spending increase — will keep the grass roots, and the president, at bay, even if it never passes the Senate.
But the crux of the problem is pretty clear six months into Trump’s presidency: Unified Republican control of government is a picture of complete disunity.
“We’ve got many rebellions in the party right now,” said Orrin Hatch of Utah, the most senior GOP senator. “Which is not unusual.”
Conservatives are angry at moderates for getting squeamish on Obamacare repeal, and other Republicans are livid at conservatives for pushing repeal without a replacement. House appropriators are mad at their leaders for scaling back their spending bill. And House leadership is ticked at conservatives for holding up the budget.
The GOP’s big-ticket agenda was always planned to be a one-two punch of party-line votes to repeal Obamacare and rewrite the tax code. The tax savings from Obamacare would ease tax reform, and the party’s use of budget reconciliation would allow the GOP to pass this agenda with simple majorities in both chambers.
But now those savings may be gone and the GOP’s momentum from a sweeping electoral win has faded.
“Health care is the high-profile issue. And right now we’re stalled out on that. I suppose people can get impressions about, at least at this point, our inability to complete that part of the agenda,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Republican in the chamber. “I don’t think it puts [us at] risk or in jeopardy in other elements of the agenda.”
In the House, Republicans are more demoralized about their own intra-conference wars. They don’t have 218 votes to pass a budget because conservatives want to move the blueprint further to the right while moderates want to move to the center.
House appropriators were particularly irked Wednesday after GOP leaders decided not to pursue an idea from Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.) to pass a conservative spending plan that lays out Republican funding priorities before the recess. Leaders did a whip check for support on Monday and found a record amount of “undecided” votes — not enough for passage.
GOP leaders, worried about the optics of the government funding package failing on the floor, canned the idea and replaced it with the smaller version. But appropriators seethed that leaders pulled the plug too soon and didn’t give them enough time to muster up support.
“We worked really hard on these bills,” said appropriator Tom Rooney (R-Fla.). “The whole purpose of whipping is to be able to make your case so the fact that we did all this work and it’s not going anywhere is really frustrating.”
Now Republicans are thinking of changing their tactics to get tax reform done, hopeful that reform will bring their party together and increase the GOP’s popularity heading into the 2018 midterms.
Republican senators are hoping that Hatch and McConnell don’t go down the same road that produced a deadlocked GOP over health care. Republicans avoided public committee hearings and markups, fearful that the narrowly divided Senate panels might tank their effort entirely.
On tax reform, Thune and Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine all said they are hoping for a different process than on health care.
“Whether it’s health care, tax reform or infrastructure, we ought to at least make a sincere effort to have open hearings, witnesses that will vet a variety of proposals and incorporate ideas on both sides,” Collins said.
“Tax reform is tough," Flake said. "But it’s not health care. Health care affects people in a different way. It’s the toughest. Tax reform is going to be a heavy lift. Nothing easy. Nothing easy. But that’s why they pay us the big bucks.”
But while they mull the big-picture agenda, the day-to-day governance is piling up. The debt ceiling must be lifted by the fall, and government funding runs out on Sept. 30, as does the flood insurance program and authorization of the Federal Aviation Administration.
The FAA bill, like almost everything these days, has been mired in the House amid GOP infighting. Leadership had to pull the legislation from the calendar, and even the White House — including Trump’s chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn — has been unable to help it reach 218.
Asked whether additional recess days might need to be canceled for Republicans to get on the same page and make progress on their agenda, Perdue gave an unequivocal “Hell yeah.”
John Bresnahan contributed to this report.