GOP Frets Over Slow Pace of Congress Early in Trump Term

  • Looming fights on spending, debt limit likely to clog calendar
  • Corker says probes of Trump aide contacts with Russia distract

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Congress is off to a slow start this year, and Republicans are starting to get nervous.

The Senate is tied up with delays in confirming President Donald Trump’s cabinet, the House is spending most of its time undoing regulations from the end of the previous president’s term, and a promised swift repeal of Obamacare is stalled.

"Is there some concern? Yes. Is it a panic stage? No," said North Carolina Representative Mark Walker, chairman of the 170-member Republican Study Committee.

Less than a month into Barack Obama’s first term, he had already signed into law a measure extending health insurance to 4.1 million more U.S. children, a $787 billion economic stimulus package and legislation making it easier for employees to challenge wage discrimination. By contrast, Trump has signed legislation rolling back Obama-era rules on energy companies’ disclosures and coal-mining waste, a law related to the Government Accountability Office’s ability to access certain records and a waiver allowing his defense secretary to be confirmed.

The slow start could end up delaying other Republican priorities, including an ambitious tax overhaul. Party leaders insist in public that they remain on target, but the legislative calendar is getting clogged enough to jeopardize significant chunks of the GOP’s agenda for the year.

See also: Key Republican Casts Doubt on Quick Action to Dismantle Dodd-Frank

Health and Taxes

Complicating matters, Republicans are getting ambushed almost every day by the news blitz from the Trump White House, particularly the revelations that intelligence agencies and the FBI are examining the extent of contacts Trump’s advisers had with Russia during and after the 2016 campaign. Calls for Congress to more exhaustively look into Russia’s involvement in the elections could further slow the policy agenda, lawmakers say.

“It is a distraction,” said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, adding that it takes the focus off other important issues like overhauling the tax code. “It takes away from other efforts. We have a job to do here, it’s important and it matters to people. There’s no question that all the activity around Russia right now is a distraction.”

House Republicans met Thursday behind closed doors to try to regain some momentum on their plan to repeal Obamacare, but action still remains weeks away, or longer. These delays, in turn, push back the GOP’s tax plans.

Neither issue has progressed enough to be on schedule to wrap up by August recess, according to a person familiar with leadership’s thinking who isn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Even if Congress gets to the tax bill by the end of the year, it’s unlikely to have any impact in 2017, giving the changes little time to spur economic growth before the 2018 midterm election. While Republicans will be able to claim success in rolling back some regulations, party leaders privately recognize they need to pick up the pace on health care and taxes to get back on track, the person said.

That won’t be easy. Congress is taking a one-week recess next week. 

When they get back, Republicans will deal with at least two dozen more measures to undo various Obama regulations under the 20-year-old Congressional Review Act, which will tie up floor action for a while. The House has so far passed 13 of these measures. They must act by early May on rules that include one that would blacklist federal contractors with labor-law violations and another boosting energy-efficiency standards to curb carbon emissions.

Republican leaders publicly insist that they remain on schedule and that rolling back regulations will be a significant achievement.

"Congressional Republicans and President Trump outlined a 200-day agenda and we’ve hit every benchmark yet, including passing a budget and passing significant regulatory relief,” AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, said in a statement. “We are now in the midst of moving Obamacare repeal and replace and then will move to tax reform, just as our timeline spelled out.”

The Senate, meanwhile, will still be processing Trump’s cabinet picks, as Democrats use procedural obstacles to slow down their approval. The Senate on Thursday confirmed South Carolina Representative Mick Mulvaney as director of the Office of Management and Budget on a 51-49 vote.

“The climate right now in the Senate is as toxic as I’ve ever seen it,” Senate Banking Chairman Mike Crapo said at a Washington conference Wednesday. Confirming Trump’s appointees has been “a very slow process, much more slow than we have seen before, and that impacts everything else.”

See also: Tennessee Hints at Chaos If Republicans Leave Obamacare in Limbo

Funding Deadline

Congress is also facing an April 28 deadline to pass a new spending measure, since government funding runs out then. Lawmakers also will have to take action on the debt ceiling, likely before the scheduled August recess.

“I think the American public expects us to act a little quicker than we are,” Representative Jeff Duncan, a South Carolina Republican, told reporters.

Concern about early inaction comes despite the series of executive orders by Trump, including ones advancing the long-stalled Keystone XL pipeline project, a wall along the U.S. Mexico border, and a travel ban on seven Muslim-dominated nations. And the Senate has approved a series of Trump’s key cabinet nominees to lead the Treasury Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services and others.

Walker and other Republicans say legislating will pick up soon as the full cabinet is in place and officials settle in to their jobs, including HHS Secretary Tom Price, who will guide efforts to replace the Affordable Care Act.

‘Decks Will Be Cleared’

Many Republicans, including Representative Doug Lamborn of Colorado, say that they’re doing exactly what their constituents want them to do by rolling back Obama’s regulations.

Once the Senate get through the nominations backlog, Lamborn says "their decks will be cleared to start taking up House legislation and sending us some of their own legislation, and the pace will pick up."

Republicans in Congress are hampered by a lack of concrete proposals from Trump that can fill in the details on his campaign agenda that included building a “wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border and boosting infrastructure investments, said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. On the matter of Obamacare, which Republicans already are trying to tackle on their own, there are real political risks to making choices quickly that could leave some people without insurance coverage.

“The political costs of trying to do this in the short term might not be worth it,” he said.

Lawmakers will be listening to see whether Trump offers more concrete proposals when he addresses a joint session of Congress Feb. 28.

Sinking Polls

Meanwhile, any further worsening in Trump’s approval ratings risks fraying prospects of unity in the party going forward.

Trump entered office on Jan. 20 as the first elected president in the Gallup poll’s history to see an initial job approval rating below a majority, with just 45 percent of Americans approving of the way he was handling the job.

It’s only dropped since. The new president’s approval rating was just 41 percent as of Tuesday, according to the poll. By comparison, Obama’s rating was 64 percent around the same point in his presidency, Gallup says.

“They’re not breaking from him yet,” Zelizer said. “But we don’t know how long that will last.”

Zelizer said that despite the slow start, he still sees plenty of prospect for action on items that can attract support from at least some Democrats in the Senate, where Republicans hold just 52 seats. Some key items that have the best chance include a boost in defense spending, some added spending to bolster security at the border, a tax overhaul and changes to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street regulations approved under Obama.

For his part, Ryan has worked to keep expectations tempered after Republicans’ surprise ballot-box wins in November.

Ryan shortly after the election spoke of making the new session “the most productive Congress we’ve seen in a long, long time,” although he stayed away from the customary pronouncement about a highly productive first 100 days of a new presidency. Instead, he spoke about a first 200 days that would center on a drive to repeal and replace Obamacare.

— With assistance by Arit John, Anna Edgerton, and Elizabeth Dexheimer

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