WASHINGTON — The 2018 Republican legislative agenda is on a diet.
As House and Senate GOP lawmakers huddled at a West Virginia resort Wednesday through Friday for their annual retreat, they discussed a handful of legislative items they would like to tackle this year, including defense, infrastructure, workforce development and the budget process.
It was a whittled-down version of what many Republicans had originally envisioned, reflecting the pressures of a midterm election year and its typically unfavorable climate for major legislative achievements.
The 2018 legislative calendar is tight, given that floor time in the coming weeks, and possibly months, will be eaten up by must-pass government spending and immigration bills, as well as scheduled recesses, including a long October break for campaigning.
But intraparty dynamics are also at play.
After passing a landmark tax bill last December — the GOP’s biggest 2017 accomplishment — Republicans got a confidence boost and had high hopes for the new year. They talked of taking another shot at repealing and replacing the 2010 health care law, overhauling welfare programs and cutting mandatory spending.
Many of those grand ambitions originated in the House Republican Conference. While some senators were thinking similarly big — especially when it came to redeeming themselves on health care after the 2017 effort stalled in their chamber — Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quickly tamped down expectations, saying at the end of the year that both health care repeal and entitlement changes were likely off the table.
Despite McConnell’s comments, House Republicans continued their push. Speaker Paul D. Ryan never stopped talking about tackling welfare programs as a way to reduce the poverty rate. And several others said they hoped health care and welfare overhauls would be discussed in West Virginia in the days leading up to the retreat.
“I’m hoping that I’m going to hear that we’re going to work on welfare reform this year,” North Carolina Rep. Richard Hudson said Jan. 29. “And I hope we’re going to talk about health care, because we can’t accept the Senate’s answer that they don’t have the votes to do anything, because people back home are hurting.”
Some members, however, saw the writing on the wall.
“I don’t know that I’m optimistic that welfare reform is going to get done,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said before the retreat. The North Carolina Republican had been similarly dour on prospects for overhauling the health insurance system.
When the retreat opened Wednesday night — slightly late after a train carrying GOP lawmakers, their families and aides from Washington to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, crashed into a dump truck on the way — Ryan provided an overview of the major topics up for discussion.
Those were infrastructure, immigration, workforce development, health care and budget caps and the debt ceiling, according to Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker.
Only two of the topics, infrastructure and workforce development, had full breakout sessions on Thursday, the main day of the retreat. The others were discussed briefly, and no significant decisions were made on immigration, the budget caps or the debt ceiling.
On health care, Republicans seemed to concede that a repeal and replace effort will not happen, despite their interest. That’s largely because most senators don’t want to go through another partisan exercise on the topic via the budget reconciliation process — which Republicans acknowledge will not be used in 2018 — especially as they work with a one-vote cushion.
“We’re not totally abandoning that idea, we’re just having to be creative in the tactical approach,” Meadows said.
Republicans are looking at health care legislation designed to lower premiums and address reinsurance and risk pools.
With previous Senate commitments to take up health care stabilization bills related to reinsurance and the current law’s cost sharing reduction subsidies, or CSRs, those issues will be “dealt with in some shape, form or fashion,” Meadows said.
“To allow those things to go on their own track without conservative input would be a poor tactical move,” he said when asked if conservatives are open to funding the CSRs given their previous opposition. “So there are a number of conservatives willing to at least engage in those conversations to see how those vehicles might materialize in terms of lowering premiums.”Any health care stabilization effort would require bipartisan support, and years’ worth of partisan hard feelings over the 2010 law make that a heavy lift.
Ryan, speaking to reporters Thursday, provided a brief overview of some of the agenda items they discussed and made sure to mention welfare.
“We need to help people move from welfare to work so they can tap their true potential,” the speaker said.
But what Republicans discussed during the retreat was effectively welfare overhaul lite. Rather than the laundry list of policy ideas outlined in the House GOP’s “A Better Way” welfare agenda from 2016, lawmakers are talking about a smaller set of “workforce development” policies, like requiring beneficiaries of food stamps and other government programs to do job training or otherwise show they are making an effort to get employed.
The phrasing evolution from “welfare reform” to “workforce development” is deliberate, an acknowledgement that the latter has more campaign appeal.
“We would never change terminology like that to make it more marketable, we wouldn’t do that, no,” Walker joked.
Narrowing the scope was a practical move, as Republicans acknowledge that their full-blown welfare plan could move only through reconciliation. And that’s not happening in 2018.
House Budget Chairman Steve Womack said that even without a budget reconciliation process, House Republicans, and hopefully senators too, will pursue an agenda that will bring people into employment through “reforms that we hope to make in our programs of training, etc. and work requirements, which is a major plank in our philosophy.”
A similar description from House GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers mentioned apprenticeship programs and work requirements for certain benefit programs.
The agenda item that appears to be most in line with the initial GOP vision is infrastructure.
President Donald Trump has long called for $200 billion in new federal spending to help public-private partnerships that would materialize into a more than $1 trillion package. In his State of the Union address, the president specifically called for a package totaling $1.5 trillion.
Now GOP leaders, as part of the budget cap negotiations, are trying to see if they can make a down payment on the federal portion of the funding by earmarking a significant chunk of any nondefense cap increase toward infrastructure, given Democrats’ demands for a boost in domestic dollars that would match any defense increase.
“I wouldn’t say we’re insisting that, but I do think it would make some sense,” Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune said. “If we’re going to plus-up significantly nondefense discretionary and try and do the kind of infrastructure that the administration is talking about … we have to pay for it somehow.”
Rep. Charlie Dent, an appropriator, was not thrilled with the idea.
“I would rather that leadership be less prescriptive as to how the Appropriations Committee should go about doing its work,” the Pennsylvania Republican said.
— Lindsey McPherson
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