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Drift in Congress Could Lead to Shipwreck This Fall

  • Associated Press

The Capitol in Washington is quiet after lawmakers departed the for the Independence Day recess, June 30, 2017.

Republicans are stuck on health care, can't pass a budget, and hopes for a big, bipartisan infrastructure package are fizzling. Overhauling the tax code looks more and more like a distant dream.

The GOP-led Congress has yet to salt away a single major legislative accomplishment for President Donald Trump — and a summer of drift may lead to a logistical nightmare this fall.

Instead, Trump's allies appear both divided and indecisive, unable to deliver on his agenda while letting other must-do congressional business — chiefly their core responsibilities of passing a budget and spending bills, and keeping the government solvent — slide onto an already daunting fall agenda.

Friday brought more bad news for Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, and other House leaders as 20 GOP moderates signaled a revolt on the budget, penning a letter to Ryan announcing their opposition to an emerging plan to force cuts to government agencies and benefit programs such as food stamps. The letter, authored by Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, warned that without an agreement with Democrats on increasing agency spending, moderates will be "reticent to support any budget."

Congressional aides and interns wait for a tram as corridors around the Senate are quiet after lawmakers departed Capitol Hill in Washington for the Independence Day recess, June 30, 2017. The Republican leadership in the Senate decided this week to delay a vote on their long-awaited health care bill in following opposition in the GOP ranks.
Congressional aides and interns wait for a tram as corridors around the Senate are quiet after lawmakers departed Capitol Hill in Washington for the Independence Day recess, June 30, 2017. The Republican leadership in the Senate decided this week to delay a vote on their long-awaited health care bill in following opposition in the GOP ranks.

"It's looking like they're very disorganized. They got obviously a lot of conflict over spending preferences, and it's not just a two-way conflict," said top House Budget Committee Democrat John Yarmuth of Kentucky. "It's just a tough Rubik's Cube they're trying to solve."

Budget, spending bills

So it's not just the Senate effort to repeal and replace Democrat Barack Obama's health care law that's foundering. The annual congressional budget measure — a prerequisite to this fall's hoped-for tax effort — is languishing as well, as are the 12 annual spending bills that typically consume weeks of House floor time each summer.

But GOP leaders say all is going well. Ryan told a Wisconsin radio host on Thursday that "it's the most productive Congress since the mid-'80s" and issued a news release Friday titled "Despite What You May Hear, We Are Getting Things Done." The release cites a bipartisan Department of Veterans Affairs accountability measure and 14 bills repealing Obama-era regulations as Congress' top achievements.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., pauses during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, June 29, 2017. In a news release June 30, Ryan said Congress "is getting things done to help improve people's lives.''
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., pauses during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, June 29, 2017. In a news release June 30, Ryan said Congress "is getting things done to help improve people's lives.''

"It would be hard to fault the average American for thinking all that's going on in Washington these days is high-drama hearings and partisan sniping," Ryan said. "But amid the countdown clocks and cable news chatter, something important is happening: Congress is getting things done to help improve people's lives."

In the first year of a presidency, the annual August congressional recess is a traditional point to take stock. By that point, Obama had signed an economic recovery bill and President George W. Bush had won his landmark tax cuts, while President Bill Clinton was celebrating a hard-fought budget package.

Trump has no comparable successes to trumpet — but his allies in Congress say they're not worried.

"We laid out an agenda in November and December, and we're needing to get there," said House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions of Texas. "And we can effectively get there. The questions that confound us are those that we can answer ourselves. And we will."

Democratic help

And as Republicans are stalled on health care, the budget and infrastructure, there are several other problems that need to be taken care of, including increasing the nation's borrowing authority, preventing a government shutdown, and lifting budget "caps" that are hobbling efforts to beef up the military.

Unlike health care, the debt limit and a deal to fix the spending caps — a leftover from a failed 2011 budget deal — can be resolved only with Democratic help. However, they promise to consume political capital and valuable time and energy, and there's no political payoff, other than forestalling disaster.

First, Congress is off on vacation, to return in July for a three-week session. Then comes the traditional monthlong August recess.

After Labor Day comes a four-week sprint to October and the deadline to avert a government shutdown with a temporary spending bill — and to forestall a disastrous default on U.S. obligations by lifting the debt limit, which is a politically toxic vote for many Republicans.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky tells reporters he is delaying a vote on the GOP health care bill at the Capitol in Washington, June 27, 2017. Some of McConnell's fellow Republican senators, citing a long to-do list, are telling him it might be wise to cancel some of the congressional recess.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky tells reporters he is delaying a vote on the GOP health care bill at the Capitol in Washington, June 27, 2017. Some of McConnell's fellow Republican senators, citing a long to-do list, are telling him it might be wise to cancel some of the congressional recess.

Sentiment is building among some lawmakers to shorten the recess to make progress on the unfinished work that is piling up. On Friday, 10 GOP senators, led by David Perdue of Georgia, sent Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky a letter citing delays on health care, the budget, a stopgap spending bill and the debt limit as reasons to consider canceling some or all of the recess.

"If we successfully navigate those priorities, we can finally get to our once-in-a-generation opportunity on tax reform," the letter said. "Growing the economy, repairing our infrastructure and rebuilding our military are all dependent on accomplishing the tasks before us."

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