In the wake of Trumpcare’s spectacular demise last week, Republicans are having a difficult time sticking to a coherent story about what went wrong, what comes next, and why they’ll succeed.
President Donald Trump appeared determined on Friday to shift the GOP’s attention away from health care, saying, “[W]e will probably start going very, very strongly for the big tax cuts and tax reform. That will be next.” The same day, House Speaker Paul Ryan said that “Obamacare is the law of the land ... for the foreseeable future.” But earlier this week, the White House and Republican leaders reportedly decided to give American Health Care Act the old college try again. “We are going to keep getting at this thing,” Ryan assured donors on Monday. “We’re not going to just all of a sudden abandon health care and move on to the rest.”
It is easy to see why Republicans are so discombobulated. In their telling, Obamacare repeal was supposed to be the climactic achievement of a newly consolidated GOP government. But when Trump won the presidency, giving Republicans their opening, the GOP delivered no gratification at all.
The failure of Trumpcare wasn’t a tactical one, though, nor was it one that Republicans can correct with more practice. It was a harbinger of a larger reckoning with the disparity between the payoff they promised and the truth of their inadequacies. There will likely be no quick and seamless transition to tax reform, or to any major legislative initiative that they intend to embark upon.
Republicans appear unable to meet even basic governing obligations on their own. This will mean, at the very least, shelving campaign promises and long-term ideological objectives; most likely it will mean seeking help from Democrats. But this augurs disaster. Democrats rightly won’t cooperate with attempts to demolish their legacy, while everything we know about Trump—and about the empty promises Republicans made to their voters over the years—suggests the GOP will be loath to empower Democrats. Yet failure to do so will end in ruin for all of us.
The GOP’s coming difficulties will stem from internal divisions over whether they should use government-funding legislation and debt-limit legislation as vehicles for ideological objectives large and small.
Funding for the day-to-day operations of the government will lapse on April 28, so congressional Republicans are scrambling to agree on a spending package to prevent a government shutdown. Trump’s non-binding budget complicated those efforts by asking Congress to crush nearly all major domestic priorities (from medical research to environmental protection to assistance for the poor) to finance large increases in military and security spending. Republicans pronounced it dead on arrival on Capitol Hill, but the budget captured the essence of the Republican Party’s longstanding priorities. This is what Republicans have been promising since the beginning of the Obama era.
But while Republicans control Congress, there is no conceivable spending bill they could ram through the House that would also get the necessary 60 votes in the Senate, where Republicans hold just 52 seats. They need buy-in from at least a few Democrats.
As it dawns on conservative House members that Congress will fund Trump’s government in much the same way they funded President Barack Obama’s—without gutting Planned Parenthood or Obamacare—their opposition will grow, fueling Democratic leverage. Without support from the House Freedom Caucus, Republicans will need even more Democratic votes, positioning Democrats to make demands of their own. The same basic dynamic will swamp Republican objectives when Congress has to increase the debt limit this summer.
At a minimum, Democrats will seek “clean” bills that fund the government and increase the debt limit without goring any sacred liberal cows. But as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi suggested at a Capitol roundtable for reporters and columnists on Tuesday, there are lines Democrats won’t cross. And if Republicans try to use either bill as source of leverage, or a vehicle for horse trading, they will either have to reciprocate or shut down their own government.
“Needless to say, our appropriators are on high alert for opportunities, as well as to fight,” she said. With respect to either the appropriations process or subsequent debt limit legislation, she added, “They can’t possibly think that we would be accomplices, aiding and abetting them in undermining the Affordable Care Act.”
One of Pelosi’s main priorities this Congress is to create an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate Russian election interference and the Trump campaign’s role in it. Her stated preference for an independent investigation along these lines may be simply that—a preference. But in the context of intense negotiations over funding the government, it is also best viewed as a maximal demand. Unlike a joint special committee, which Congress can create on its own, an outside commission would require legislation and Trump’s signature to create. If Republicans want to lard up must-pass bills with extraneous policy items, they may have to confront an investigative commission as a price. To the extent that Trump is deteremined to quash such an investigation, a veto threat wouldn’t just endanger the commission, but any Republican riders on the other side of the bargain as well.
There are things Republicans can do without Democratic help, particularly in the regulatory realm. They may even be able to pass a regressive income tax cut on their own, so long as they don’t tinker with the tax code too much in other ways. But we are not at the dawn of a conservative counterrevolution that will command lofty descriptions in history books years from now. If Republicans remain in denial about that, they will court a government shutdown or an even larger crisis.
Congressional Republicans spent seven years promising conservative voters that a renaissance awaited, just as soon as they won complete control of government. Trump ran for the presidency on the premise that public frustration with democratic processes stemmed from the corruption and stupidity of political leaders—and that he would break the mold. It was all nonsense. The failure of Trumpcare wasn’t a one-off mishap that Republicans can offset with victories in other realms. It was the beginning of a string of failures exposing all of their false promises, for which we all now stand to pay.