In the 115th Congress, the Senate has done little more than struggle to confirm President Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees. House Republicans say slow and steady was always the plan.
WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans, who craved unified control of the government to secure their aggressive conservative agenda, have instead found themselves on a legislative elliptical trainer, gliding toward nowhere.
After moving to start rolling back the Affordable Care Act just days after President Donald Trump was sworn in this past month, Republican lawmakers and Trump have yet to deliver on any of the sweeping legislation they promised. Efforts to come up with a replacement for the health-care law have been stymied by disagreements among Republicans about how to proceed.
On Thursday, Trump said his administration was running like a “fine-tuned machine,” and he promised health-care legislation would be offered in March, followed by a tax-code overhaul.
Planned Parenthood: The House voted Thursday to make it easier for states to deny federal family-planning funds to groups such as Planned Parenthood that also perform abortions. The new rule, which repealed an Obama administration rule, would allow states to reallocate money targeted for family-planning clinics to other, more comprehensive providers such as community-health centers. The measure, approved 230-188, now goes to the Senate.
Budget chief: The Senate on Thursday confirmed President Donald Trump’s pick to run the White House budget office, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., giving the Republicans’ tea-party wing a voice in the Cabinet. Mulvaney squeaked through on a 51-49 vote in the Republican-controlled Senate. Mulvaney’s vote means that 13 of 22 Trump Cabinet or Cabinet-level picks have been confirmed. Nominees to key Cabinet departments such as Interior, Housing and Urban Development, and Energy remain unconfirmed.
Commerce nominee: Commerce Secretary-nominee Wilbur Ross faces new questions about his banking ties to Russia, the latest member of the Trump team to be embroiled in the controversy over alleged ties to the Kremlin. Ross was sent a letter late Thursday by six Democratic senators questioning the billionaire financier about his ownership stake in the Bank of Cyprus, on which he still serves as vice chairman of the board of directors. The six senators demanded answers about his relationship with Viktor Vekselberg, the second-largest shareholder in the bank. The letter comes as congressional and law-enforcement probes widen into possible ties between members of the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
Seattle Times news services
The large infrastructure bill that Democrats and Trump were eager to pursue has barely been mentioned, other than a very general hearing to discuss well-documented needs for infrastructure improvements. Even a simple emergency-spending bill that the Trump administration promised weeks ago — which was expected to include a proposal for his wall on the Mexico border — has not materialized, leaving appropriators idle and checking Twitter.
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At this point in Barack Obama’s presidency, when Democrats controlled Washington, Congress had passed a stimulus bill totaling nearly $1 trillion to address the financial crisis, approved a measure preventing pay discrimination, expanded a children’s health-insurance program, and begun laying the groundwork for major health-care and financial-regulation bills. President George W. Bush came into office with a congressional blueprint for his signature education act, No Child Left Behind.
But in the 115th Congress, the Senate has done little more than struggle to confirm Trump’s nominees, and Republicans ultimately helped force his choice for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, to withdraw from consideration Wednesday in the face of unified Democratic opposition.
The House has spent most of its time picking off a series of deregulation measures, such as overturning a rule intended to protect surface water from mining operations. For his part, Trump has relied mostly on executive orders to advance policies.
The inactivity stems from a lack of clear policy guidance — and, just as often, contradictory messages — from the Trump administration, which does not appear to have spent the campaign and transition periods forming a legislative wish list. Democrats also have led efforts to slow the confirmation of nominees to Trump’s Cabinet who might otherwise be leading the charge.
“When you spend a lot of time talking about policy and debating policy in the presidential campaign, it is far easier to be specific about legislation when you get into office,” said Austan Goolsbee, who served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration. “President Trump spent the campaign fleshing out nothing in detail, so it’s not really a surprise that they can’t even agree on priorities, much less on actual legislative detail.”
House Republicans say slow and steady was always the plan. “We are 100 percent on pace with the 200-day plan we presented to President Trump and to members at our retreat,” Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker Paul Ryan, wrote in an email. “Budget first (check), then regs (check), then Obamacare bill (in process and on schedule), and then tax (after Obamacare).”
But even Democrats, who had been gearing up for fights and compromises on health care, a tax overhaul, infrastructure and other policy matters, are bored and frustrated. “It’s painful for someone like me who was excited about infrastructure and tax reform,” said Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn. “It seems like the administration and the majority are nowhere.”
Congressional Republicans seem wary of offering their own bills, lest Trump or one of his aides, who have largely been distracted by personnel and intelligence scandals, undercut their efforts. This was most visible when Trump demanded that Republicans come up with a replacement plan for a health-care law they had hoped to simply repeal, sending members flailing. The administration also gave conflicting messages on a tax plan embraced by House Republicans that would apply the corporate tax rate to all imports while exempting exports.
“On our side, it’s pretty clear who drives policy,” said a Republican aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But take any issue and try to figure that out from their side.”
Is the leading influence Trump’s policy adviser, Stephen Miller, who presents himself as the voice of the White House? Or the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner? Or Vice President Mike Pence? No one seems to know.
Huge overhauls of the nation’s health and tax systems — long congressional Republicans’ fantasy — are hard under the best of circumstances. When Democrats run Congress, “it’s easier for them to move ahead because they’re looking for ways to expand and grow government,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. “Republicans are looking to rein government in.”
Republicans say things would be going great if only Democrats would allow Trump his Cabinet. Under current Senate rules, Democrats are unable to filibuster any of the nominees, but they have gone out of their way to use procedural tools to drag out the process, partly because many of the president’s choices are contentious, and partly because of their antipathy for Trump. Their lone victory so far: toppling Puzder.
“They have undertaken the most unprecedented obstruction of Cabinet nominees in history,” Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said on the Senate floor Wednesday. The Senate is also preparing for battle over Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Judge Neil Gorsuch, who has been meeting with senators. “So far, Democrats are gumming up the works,” said Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa. “We will persevere. We will work our way through it.”
But if every nominee were magically confirmed tomorrow, “where would they go next?” asked Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill. “There is no leadership there.”
Indeed, a largely policy-free campaign left the Trump administration flat-footed from the start, and questions about his campaign’s communications with Russia and other distractions have prevented serious lawmaking discussions.
Some Republicans are frustrated that even social-policy bills that have long been mainstays in the House, but died in the Senate or were vetoed by Obama, are not moving forward. “I’m much more concerned about what we are not doing in the House relative to these core value issues,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.
There have been some tentative steps toward cooperation, such as an examination of Russian involvement in the presidential election. “To date, the Republicans have been pretty constructive partners on things like Russian hacking,” Himes said.
But that collaboration has its limits. A bill that would force the Trump administration to consult Congress before taking any steps to lift sanctions on Russia has been waylaid.
“We’ve got to have a government functioning first,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a sponsor of the bill.