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 Trump was sworn in last month, Republican lawmakers and Mr. Trump have yet to deliver on any of the sweeping legislation they promised. Efforts to come up with a replacement for the health care lawhave been stymied by disagreements among Republicans about how to proceed. The same is true for a proposed overhaul of the tax code.
The large infrastructure bill that both Democrats and Mr. 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 Mexican 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 Mr. Trump’s nominees, and Republicans ultimately helped force his choice for labor secretary, Andrew F. Puzder, to withdraw from consideration on Wednesday in the face of unified Democratic opposition.
The House has spent most of its time picking off a series of deregulation measures, like overturning a rule intended to protect surface water from mining operations. For his part, Mr. 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 have also led efforts to slow the confirmation of nominees to Mr. 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 the 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 D. 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 Representative Jim Himes, Democrat of Connecticut. “It seems like the administration and the majority are nowhere.”
Congressional Republicans seem wary of offering their own bills, lest Mr. Trump or one of his aides, who have largely been distracted by personnel and intelligence scandals, undercut their efforts. This was most visible when Mr. 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 to avoid being written about by Mr. Trump on Twitter. “But take any issue and try to figure that out from their side.”
Is the leading influence Mr. 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 Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona. “Republicans are looking to rein government in.”
Republicans say things would be going great if only Democrats would allow Mr. 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 Mr. Trump. Their lone victory so far: toppling Mr. Puzder.
“They have undertaken the most unprecedented obstruction of cabinet nominees in history,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said on the Senate floor on Wednesday. The Senate is also preparing for battle over Mr. Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, who has been meeting with senators. “So far, Democrats are gumming up the works,” said Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania. “We will persevere. We will work our way through it.”
But if every nominee were magically confirmed tomorrow, “where would they go next?” asked Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois. “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 Mr. 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 Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio.
There have been some tentative steps toward cooperation, like an examination of Russian involvement in the presidential election. “To date, the Republicans have been pretty constructive partners on things like Russian hacking,” Mr. 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 Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, a sponsor of the bill.
Published at Thu, 16 Feb 2017 10:00:28 +0000