In an increasingly rare non-inflammatory tweet on Tuesday morning, President Trump noted that he had scheduled a “big meeting” later in the day with the top Republicans in Congress, and suggested that they would be discussing legislative priorities, including tax reform and healthcare. “We are all pushing hard -- must get it right!” he added.
When House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky meet with Trump at the executive mansion, the list of issues they must discuss will be a long one indeed, and some of them need to be dealt with quickly. The big question is whether the president and his erstwhile allies on Capitol Hill agree on the priorities.
They will be meeting with a president who appears increasingly desperate to deflect attention from the issues hurting his administration -- primarily the fallout from an investigation into whether members of his campaign staff colluded with Russian intelligence agencies to disrupt the 2016 presidential election.
After nearly five months into his term, Trump has virtually no legislative accomplishments. Instead, the GOP Congress has spent the first few months of consolidated Republican control of Washington eliminating rules and regulations put in place by the Obama administration. That’s a major accomplishment to the party’s business backers, but it’s hard to show the president’s core supporters what he’s done that could benefit them directly.
Health Care: Looking hard for a victory, Trump has seized on the effort to eliminate the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a new, Republican-created healthcare bill. Multiple times over the past few weeks, he has called on Congress to hurry up and pass something.
The problem is that Congress doesn’t seem nearly as enthusiastic about the prospect of pressing forward on health care as Trump does. This isn’t because GOP members don’t want to get rid of the ACA -- they campaigned on it and promised their constituents that they would. It’s because, after years of infighting, culminating in the passage of the House GOP’s American Health Care Act, they still haven’t found an ACA replacement that can pass both the House and the Senate.
The Senate has shown no interest in taking up the House bill, and despite promises that the chamber will vote on its own reform bill by the end of June, there has been no substantive proposal put forward. There’s a conventional wisdom hardening in Washington that suggests McConnell’s working plan is to put up a bill that can’t pass, let it fail, and declare that it’s time to move on to other priorities.
Tax Reform: Of the major issues the GOP has promised to address in the near term, tax reform is probably both the closest to the heart of both McConnell and Ryan and the farthest from any sort of resolution.
There are several reasons for this, the first of which is the sheer complexity of the undertaking. While senior Trump administration officials, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, continue to insist that tax reform is something that can be completed by year end, Congressional leaders are much more cautious about a timetable for restructuring a system that reaches into every corner of the United States economy.
Two other reasons are tied to the method by which the GOP plans to pass whatever tax reform legislation it winds up crafting. The plan is to graft the bill to a budget reconciliation measure modifying the 2018 federal budget. As with the plan to pass health care reform via a modification to the 2017 budget, this would allow Senate Republicans to pass it with just a bare majority of votes, eliminating the possibility of a Democratic filibuster.
The biggest current problem with that plan is that, so far, there isn’t a 2018 budget law to modify. No reconciliation bill can come to the floor if there isn’t a budget to apply it to. That makes it pretty much impossible for the GOP to press forward with a tax reform package in the next few months. However, it also gives leaders an excuse for taking their time to produce the most comprehensive piece of legislation they can. In theory, a 2018 budget reconciliation bill could still be viable into September of 2018.
Debt Ceiling: It’s not sexy, and it isn’t something that Trump or anybody else in the GOP wants to campaign on. But ironically, the first major legislative priority over the coming months may be the pedestrian task of assuring that the federal government continues to pay its bills.
The Treasury will run out of borrowing authority sometime in the late summer or, at best, the early fall. That means that unless they want to run the risk of putting the government into a potentially disastrous default, lawmakers need to raise the country’s borrowing limit before they leave town in August.
So far, the Trump administration has sent mixed signals about where it stands on the mechanism of getting a debt ceiling increase passed. Given the looming deadline and the difficulty that Congress has had with debt ceiling legislation in the past, McConnell and Ryan are likely to stress the importance of moving forward with the effort -- and identifying a coherent White House policy on the issue, immediately.
2018 Budget: The aforementioned tax reform plan, as well as the minor issue of keeping the federal government open and operational, both hang on the ability of Congress to come to some sort of agreement on federal spending by the end of September.
As with the debt ceiling, budget negotiations are dull, wonky, and uninspiring to the kinds of voters who showed up at rallies to cheer for Trump both before and after the election. But without one, the government closes down, and the prospects for tax reform in 2018 dry up.
So, all told, McConnell and Ryan are likely to be viewed as unwelcome messengers by the president on Tuesday, reminding him that his priorities and theirs don’t necessarily align.