With the passage of an enormous budget bill, the GOP-controlled Congress all but wrapped up its legislating for the year. But will it be enough to persuade voters to give Republicans another term at the helm?
In two big ways, Republicans have done what they promised. They passed a long-sought tax overhaul bill that slashed tax rates. They’ve rolled back regulations, in ways they claim are boosting the economy. In the Senate, they confirmed a justice to the Supreme Court.
But there are signs Americans wanted more: immigration reforms, gun control legislation, even an infrastructure plan that President Donald Trump promised voters. Tax cuts, for now, will have to do.
“It’s very clear that tax reform was going to be the biggest legislative crown jewel of this Congress,” said Matt Gorman, the spokesman for the House GOP’s campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee. “That is a massive centerpiece of our campaign.”
But polls swing wildly these days, strategists said. Voters are rarely focused for too long on single issues that can make or break campaigns, as when Republicans seized control of the House in 2010 amid the economic downturn or Democrats pushed to the majority in 2006 over opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and congressional ethics scandals.
Trump’s mixed messages on the GOP’s accomplishments only make the campaigning more difficult. At the White House on Friday, he toyed with a veto of the $1.3 trillion budget package, complaining it lacked his immigration deal and smacked of overspending, before ultimately signing it. Such shifting views leave Republicans without a reliable partner as they try to push through political headwinds in what’s expected to be a tough battle for majority control of the House and Senate.
Lawmakers left town for a two-week recess that marks the unofficial end of the legislating season having shelved resolution of other issues.
Leftovers: health care, DACA
Congress failed to pass legislation to curb rising health insurance premiums or protect young immigrants known as Dreamers from deportation, two issues that have stirred voters this year. And before the nationwide “March for Our Lives” protests against gun violence, lawmakers took modest steps to boost school safety funds and improve compliance with the federal gun purchase background check system.
Kris Brown, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said the measures are “just not enough.”
“The American people have been screaming from the rooftops for real, bold change to fight against” tragedies such as the Florida and Las Vegas shootings, Brown said. “We have seen the consequences of Congress’s inaction.”
A modest agenda
Congress’ spring agenda is thin. It includes modest plans to finish a banking bill that rolls back some of the regulations put in place after the financial crisis and pass a big farm bill that sets agriculture and school nutrition policies. The Senate also has to begin confirmation hearings for Trump’s nominees for secretary of state and CIA director.
The one legislative lift will be another spending bill when the one Trump signed into law expires at the end of September. But it may bring more political risk than reward for Republicans, since conservatives largely sided with the president against this one, and could pose a more serious threat of voter revolt in the fall.
Strategists say it will be up to candidates to make the case that the GOP’s signature legislative accomplishment is worth their re-election.
Democrats have been hammering on the tax law as a giveaway to big business, in part because the steep reduction in corporate rates, from 35 percent to 21 percent, is permanent while the reduced rates for individuals and other provisions for families, including expanded child tax credits, expire in coming years.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has derided the lopsided benefits for households as “crumbs” — a quip Republicans eagerly throw back at Democrats.
Millions in GOP ads
To prop up public opinion of the GOP’s top accomplishment, millions are being spent by outside groups. American Action Network, which is aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, is unleashing more than $30 million in ads, and the network backed by the influential Koch brothers will spend more than $20 million, heaping praise on lawmakers who voted for the tax cuts and informing voters about those who didn’t.
And with passage of tax cuts so important to the GOP election effort, Republicans might take the unusual step of trying to pass them again.
“We think there’s more we can do,” Ryan said.
House GOP leaders are seriously considering legislation this summer — “Tax Cuts 2” — that would try to build on the original bill that became law in December by making the individual tax cuts permanent.
A do-over tax cuts bill is not expected to pass this Congress. But setting up another showdown accomplishes political goals for Republicans by turning attention back on the tax law, and pushing Democrats into the uncomfortable position of voting against it, again.
Americans for Prosperity, one of the groups in the Koch network, launched an ad campaign urging Congress to fortify the law by making tax cuts permanent. “More needs to be done,” the group says on a website for its advocacy.
“Even if there are things that get passed between now and the fall, the bottom line is the single most important piece of legislation is going to be the tax bill,” said veteran strategist David Winston, who advises House and Senate GOP leadership. “That defines what this Congress is about.”