Congress is back

Congress is back

Congressional Republicans return to work this week thrilled they passed a major tax reform bill before Christmas but uncertain and divided about what they will do in 2018, a critical election year.

Entering their second year of unified control of Washington, GOP lawmakers have more questions than answers about what they can accomplish, with divergent ideas over the policy agenda and political path to the midterms. At the heart of it all is a significant rift between the top leaders in the House and Senate about whether to tackle entitlement reform, a longstanding GOP priority.

On key issues like health care, immigration and reining in debt from safety net programs, congressional Republicans are split, just when a more unified message might help convince voters to keep them in power.

History shows that in the first midterm election of a new presidency, the president party usually suffers.

GOP leaders are anxious to escape that fate.

Divisions over entitlement reform and another Obamacare repeal

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R Kentucky, has provided few details of what he will put on the floor this year but he has made clear he doesn plan to force controversial entitlement changes through his narrowly divided chamber or make another attempt at a broad repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which failed last summer.

wish them well, McConnell said bluntly when asked about the continued effort by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R South Carolina, to push forward on his repeal proposal, which fell short of the necessary votes in September. McConnell added that he wanted Graham, and the bill co sponsor, Sen. Bill Cassidy, R Louisiana, to continue working to gather support for their proposal. But McConnell noted that without the votes and there currently no sense among top GOP aides that the votes to advance the proposal exist the top Senate Republican is limited in what he can do.

McConnell would also have to decide, likely soon, to push forward on another budget reconciliation effort in order to provide a vehicle in which to move a new repeal effort with a simple majority vote. At this point, there are no signs of any preparation for such an effort, aides say.

That bothers many House Republicans who pushed through an Obamacare repeal bill last year only to see it falter in the Senate.

is some debate between Republicans, even in the House, and certainly Mitch McConnell, said Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina, who chairs the conservative Republican Study Committee. that a promise we have continued to make. first order of business when the Senate reconvenes Wednesday will be to swear in Alabama Democrat Doug Jones, who will slice into the GOP already slim advantage.

McConnell lamented recently, a pretty tight majority. reality of the Senate math means other Republicans including the powerful House speaker, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin may need to curb their ambitious policy goals because any substantial legislation will need at least nine Democrats to get the 60 vote supermajority required to pass.

Ryan enthusiasm to reform entitlements, something he pushed to do for many years, was on display in a recent Fox News interview.

going to take on welfare reform, which is another big entitlement program, where we basically paying people able bodied people not to work, Ryan said. is the perfect time to do welfare reform. it unlikely many Democrats would back such changes, even if Trump makes a big push to sell the reforms. Even Democrats up for re election in states Trump won who might see a political advantage to working with him showed only modest interest in his agenda during his first year in the White House.

That is a reality McConnell coldly pointed to when he rejected Ryan push for an entitlement overhaul.

think that Democrats will not be interested in entitlement reform, McConnell told Axios. I would not expect to see that on the agenda. about the split, an aide to the speaker pointed to a meeting scheduled for next weekend at Camp David, when Ryan, McConnell and Trump will hash out the legislative agenda.

Another key meeting this week is expected to take place Wednesday, when White House chief of staff John Kelly plans to go to Capitol Hill to discuss spending issues with Ryan, McConnell and the top two Democratic leaders, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, according to two sources.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R North Carolina, who flew to DC last week to preside over a short pro forma session of the Senate, said he hopes Trump uses the bully pulpit this year to convince centrist Democrats to support entitlement reform and other GOP goals.

speaker does a good job understanding where his votes are over there. The leader does a good job over here. The reality is a lot of what we need to do requires 60 votes, Tillis said. maybe the question is, how can the President get to people on the other side to produce a positive result? reform is not cutting, as everyone says it is, he added. trying to get it on a sound fiscal footing. fixes, Dreamers, infrastructure

Conservatives in the House and centrist Republicans in the Senate are also split on whether to pass reforms to stabilize Obamacare or to allow young immigrants here illegally who were brought to the US as children to stay permanently.

They will work to narrow those differences when they hold legislative retreats at the end of the month.

Trump will give his State of the Union address January 30, a critical opportunity to sell the nation on the GOP election year agenda. Among other items, the former real estate developer plans to push Congress to back one of his top campaign pledges: spending billions to improve bridges, roads and other infrastructure projects across the country.

While some deficit hawks in the GOP are wary of spending hundreds of billions of dollars on infrastructure, many have said they are open to Trump emerging proposal because it provides incentives and financing to states and localities, which will then pay for the bulk of the expected trillion dollar plan.

Democrats are also divided on the plan. While most advocate a boost in federal dollars for infrastructure, which they think will create jobs and improve communities, many want a more robust package than the administration has outlined. And they fear Republicans will push spending cuts elsewhere in the budget to offset new infrastructure funding.

GOP leaders desperately wanted to complete those issues last year but couldn as they focused primarily on passing tax reform, their most significant legislative victory of this session of Congress.

The government is set to run out of money January 19. Negotiators have worked to strike a deal that would raise budget caps on defense and domestic programs and allow a bill to pass that would fund the government through September, the end of the fiscal year. If they can reach a deal on caps, government funding might have to limp forward on a series of stopgap measures to prevent a shutdown.