President Donald Trump laid out a path for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to get back in his good graces: replace Obamacare, overhaul the U.S. tax code and find a way to pay for big infrastructure improvements.
Yet clearing Trump’s agenda anytime soon is close to impossible in the narrowly controlled Republican Senate that already has a packed agenda of must-pass legislation.
Trump’s direction for McConnell came after he assailed the Senate Republican leader for two days on Twitter over the Senate’s failure to change the Affordable Care Act. When asked by a reporter whether McConnell should step down, Trump said Thursday he would withhold judgment.
“If he doesn’t get repeal and replace done,” along with taxes and infrastructure, Trump said, “then you can ask me that question.”
Trump amplified his criticism early Friday, retweeting a Fox News story depicting his comments as a “warning shot” to the Republican leader. In another post, Trump highlighted a second Fox story saying that Republican senators were learning “the hard way about the fallout from turning on Trump.”
Trump said during the presidential campaign that “I alone can fix it,” referring to the problems that he said plagued the U.S. But when his agenda goes adrift — as it did with the GOP’s push to undo President Barack Obama’s signature health care law last month — he is quick to fault others.
“I’m very disappointed in Mitch,” the president told reporters at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey, where he is on a working vacation. “Repeal and replace of Obamacare should’ve taken place. And it should’ve been on my desk virtually the first week I was here.”
The clock is ticking rapidly to the end of legislative work for 2017, and other needs — like raising the U.S. debt limit — are competing for scarce time. If anything, Trump may be charting a course for a worsening relationship with the Kentucky lawmaker who has led the GOP in the Senate for nearly a decade.
McConnell has sought to serve as a close ally to political newcomer Trump since Inauguration Day, forging a closer relationship with the president than that of House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who was more critical of Trump during the 2016 campaign. McConnell even successfully urged Trump to pick his wife, Elaine Chao, to serve as Transportation secretary.
Any goodwill seems to have evaporated. McConnell began this week’s discord on Monday in Kentucky by saying the president had “excessive expectations” that the Senate could pass a stripped-down version of a GOP Obamacare repeal last month. One reason some people believe Congress hasn’t done much yet, McConnell said, “is because, in part, the president and others have set these early timelines about — things need to be done by a certain point.”
“Our new president, of course, has not been in this line of work before, and I think he had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process,” said McConnell.
Trump shot back.
“Can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years, couldn’t get it done. Must Repeal & Replace ObamaCare!” Trump tweeted on Thursday. The president also tweeted: “Mitch, get back to work and put Repeal & Replace, Tax Reform & Cuts and a great Infrastructure Bill on my desk for signing. You can do it!”
The debate on those issues is likely to move slowly and may not lead to the outcome Trump wants.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. (Photo: Alexander)
Following last month’s 49-51 defeat of a bare-bones Affordable Care Act change measure, many Republicans have said the next step is likely a bipartisan plan centered on stabilizing the health care law’s insurance exchanges. Democrats have said they favor extending cost-sharing subsidies for low-income people purchasing individual policies on the exchanges to bolster participation from insurers who have left some regional markets.
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate health panel, has announced plans to begin hearings in September that likely would lead to such a measure. He’s working with the panel’s top Democrat, Senator Patty Murray of Washington.
On infrastructure, Trump was advised by McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York in January that his first legislative priority should be construction of roads, bridges and other projects. Trump didn’t take that advice, and there has been little activity in Congress to forge consensus on the issue.
Trump held a week of events in June to promote his own plan to use $200 billion in federal funds to leverage infrastructure investment. Initial efforts to gain support for the initiative were overshadowed by drama surrounding the president’s dismissal of FBI Director James Comey.
The administration hasn’t released many specifics about how it would provide the $200 billion over 10 years, which is intended to leverage at least $800 billion in spending by states, localities and the private sector. Schumer has made clear Democrats want an different approach.
On taxes, McConnell said weeks ago that an overhaul is the top priority for September, which would allow both chambers to complete work in mid-December, when lawmakers leave Washington.
Changing the tax law — a politically fraught process that will generate opposition from a range of special interests — will compete for Senate floor time against plans for a must-pass increase in the federal debt ceiling as well as spending bills to finance federal agencies for the 2018 fiscal year starting Oct. 1.
The Senate Finance Committee will consider a tax bill as early as next month, an effort that would allow more input from Democrats than the Obamacare effort, where McConnell sought to approve a bill with only Republican votes.
Democrats are preparing for battle. Early this month, 45 of the Senate’s 48 Democratic caucus members signed a letter saying they won’t support a tax-code rewrite if it raises taxes on the middle class, gives tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, or increases the federal deficit.
McConnell seeks to use a filibuster-busting mechanism that could allow a tax bill to pass with just 51 votes. He tried that same approach in the unsuccessful effort to kill Obamacare.
—With assistance from Sahil Kapur, Mark Niquette, Anna Edgerton and Justin Sink
— Read Some Senate Republicans Open to ACA Subsidy Deal on ThinkAdvisor.