During an emergency White House meeting with Senate Republicans on Tuesday, Sen. Tom Cotton felt compelled to make a last-ditch attempt to salvage the stalled Obamacare replacement.
The Arkansas Republican said that one year ago, nearly everyone in the room would have supported the Republican health care bill. Now that Republicans control all of Washington, they’re bailing, he lectured.
“You’re too weak to do what you should do,” Cotton told his colleagues, according to sources familiar with the exchange.
That brutal assessment of Senate Republicans’ reluctance to vote for their Obamacare replacement captures mounting frustration for GOP lawmakers. Five months into Donald Trump’s presidency, Hill Republicans are still struggling to make good on a host of their campaign promises because they’re warring with each other over the policy specifics.
As the House and Senate prepare to depart Thursday for a weeklong July 4 recess, they face a daunting to-do list upon their return: an unfinished health care bill in the Senate, an ugly budget fight in the House, and difficult votes to raise the debt ceiling and fund the government — not to mention tax reform and infrastructure, which are still in the earliest stages of being developed.
For many, the unchecked boxes are starting to be too much.
“We’d better get our act together,” said a frustrated Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), who sits on the House budget and appropriations committees. “We’re better than this. … We’re not governing right now. We’re stuck.”
Rep. Tom Reed, a New York Republican who leads a bipartisan caucus of pragmatic-minded members, agreed: “The fact that we’re not getting to these issues — health care, budget, tax reform — is frustrating. We came here to move the needle.”
Congressional Republicans have scored a few smaller victories. The Senate installed Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, a huge win for conservatives. And Congress enacted a major reform of the Veterans Affairs Department, an agency awash in scandal and criticized for years for failing to support the nation’s vets.
The bigger items, however, have murky outlooks.
Senators will leave town with the repeal effort stalled in a standoff that pits GOP moderates against conservatives and leaves Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with little room to maneuver. McConnell is trying to mollify centrist senators wary of kicking people off Medicaid while also garnering support from conservatives who call the entire bill Obamacare-lite.
House Republicans, meanwhile, are biting their fingernails. Many feel that the worst possible scenario for their majority would be if the Senate fails to pass the repeal bill entirely, especially after the House already passed its own version.
While the bill is deeply unpopular, according to public polls, failure would demoralize the Republican base, sending a signal that members can’t follow through on their campaign promises. Even if the Senate passes a bill, the House will have to agree to swallow it or enter into what are sure to be painful conference-committee negotiations that could drag on for months.
There’s also a more immediate concern: the effect on tax reform. Failure to repeal the Obamacare taxes would harm budget assumptions that could make tax reform much more difficult for the GOP.
“I’d like to get to tax reform, because that’s something that could really benefit our country,” said Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). “The longer [health care] goes on, the more difficult it’s going to be to do true tax reform.”
If the Senate doesn’t pass a repeal bill, some Republicans believe, Speaker Paul Ryan can kiss his majority goodbye.
House Republicans, however have their own problems. House Budget Committee Chairman Diane Black has been unable to finalize a GOP budget, the most fundamental job of Congress.
That’s because conservatives on her panel are demanding big cuts in mandatory programs like food stamps, an idea Black loves and has built into her draft budget. Several key committee chairmen, however, are balking. And while GOP insiders say they’re close to an agreement, hard-line House Freedom Caucus members are now suggesting that the cuts might not be enough to win their needed votes.
“There’s going to be a big spending increase in discretionary spending,” said Freedom Caucus leader Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), predicting GOP leaders will strike a bipartisan accord with Democrats to raise budget caps. “And we’re going to save only $150 billion to $200 billion over 10 years?”
That’s to say nothing of the Senate GOP budget, which is bound to look nothing like the document Black is writing, and which is equally crucial. If Republicans cannot pass an identical budget through both chambers, they cannot unlock the fast-tracking reconciliation tool to push through a partisan tax reform package with a simple majority in the Senate.
But all that is waiting for a result on health care.
Asked Wednesday for his sense of the Republican agenda, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said bluntly: “I don’t know what it is.” He ticked off the debt limit and government funding deadline as other hurdles to overcome in the coming months.
“We have all of these issues sitting out there that we have no schedule for being resolved,” McCain said.
Republicans hope the antidote is a productive July.
When lawmakers return from the Independence Day break, they’ll have precisely three weeks before the monthlong August recess to clear their repeal bill for Trump’s signature and also raise the debt ceiling — plus strike any bipartisan deals needed to grease the wheels to raise the nation’s borrowing authority.
After August, Republicans will have to turn immediately to avoiding a government shutdown by Sept. 30. That’s why some, including Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), are already calling for leaders to cancel the August recess, a common refrain from the rank and file that has been roundly ignored by leadership — at least so far.
“We’ve got a health care vote, the debt ceiling, then you’ve got appropriations. And then you’ve got to get to tax. And then you’ve got to [do] a budget in the meantime,” Perdue said. “I just don’t see how you get it done without working a few weeks in August.”