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Republicans in US Congress Look to Keep a Low Profile

People walk by the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 21, 2018.
People walk by the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 21, 2018.

After last year's successful drive to cut taxes, what do President Donald Trump's allies in Congress do for an encore? The answer seems to be, "Not so much."

For sure, Republicans in Washington feel good about the effect their overhaul of the nation's tax code is having on the economy, and recent polling suggests it's getting more popular as the midterm elections draw closer. But looking ahead to other potential legislation to boast about in hopes of boosting GOP chances of retaining control of the House and Senate, the agenda is pretty thin.

Trump's trillion-dollar-plus plan to boost infrastructure has landed with a thud. Hopes in the House of taking on welfare reform are fizzling. And issues like immigration and now even gun control invite internal GOP divisions at the height of primary season. Repealing and replacing former President Barack Obama's health care law is off the table.

Instead, the GOP-controlled Congress is looking ahead to a year of abbreviated workweeks and low-profile and small-bore initiatives. The House is spending more and more time on the obscure and the arcane; the Senate chamber is being turned over for weeks at a time to routine nominations.

On Monday, for example, the House is voting on seven bills to rename post offices.

Instead of repealing Obamacare, lawmakers are promising bipartisan legislation to free smaller and mid-sized banks from stricter regulations passed in 2010, fund the fight against opioids, and implement the party's promise for a huge military buildup.

To many Republicans, that's plenty.

We're going to have the largest defense buildup since Ronald Reagan. Most Republicans, they'd consider that a pretty big accomplishment. We're going to clearly do more on opioids than we've ever done,- said veteran Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. "They may be secondary issues to most people, but if you can pick off three or four big things like that I think you've got something to run on."

Opioid funding and the Pentagon increases are on track to pass this month as part of a $1.3 trillion catchall spending bill, a follow-on measure to a long-sought bipartisan budget outline that passed in February. That omnibus bill is one of the few legislative trains that's guaranteed to leave the station this year.

But for now, the Capitol Hill agenda is remarkably light.

The Senate spent last week on a series of confirmation votes, continuing a pattern since Trump took office of devoting one out of every three weeks, on average, solely to voting on Trump nominees.

And at other times, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., steers clear of controversial legislation and avoids Democratic filibusters. Every bill that passed the Senate last year either advanced under filibuster-proof rules or with the support of Democrats. In other words, there wasn't a single filibuster last year, simply because McConnell kept the floor free of anything that Democrats could block.

The result was that the Senate floor became, for weeks at a stretch, a legislative dead zone.

For its part, the House had a two-day workweek on noncontroversial legislation last week after GOP leaders canceled votes for Wednesday and Thursday, citing the decision to have Rev. Billy Graham lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda.

But some Democrats weren't buying it, noting that the supposed precedent cited by GOP leaders to cancel votes wasn't an ironclad tradition. They suggested the real reason was that the House had nothing to do and that lawmakers wanted to stay out of town to avoid political pressure on guns.

Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., said they should have spent last week working on legislation to reduce gun violence.

Instead, the House passed legislation aimed at cracking down on sex trafficking on the internet, which is part of a low-profile but widely backed Capitol Hill effort to combat human trafficking.

This week, though, it's back to the obscure BRICK Act, an Obama-era chestnut that would delay new Environmental Protection Agency rules for brick makers. There's also legislation to ease clean air rules for power plants that burn low-quality coal refuse.

Bigger issues like a hoped-for renewal of farm programs are a possibility, but a fight over House GOP demands to cut food stamps could kill it in its crib.

In the Senate, Republicans are looking ahead to a scaled-back assault on the 2010 Dodd-Frank law. Rather than an outright repeal, Republicans appear set to embrace a Senate effort that's focused more on providing regulatory relief to smaller banks. A number of Senate Democrats have signed on, especially those from rural states won by Trump.

That's the type of smaller victory that may not have mass appeal but that is important to key constituencies back home.

"It's incumbent upon members to go home and sell what we're doing up here," said Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga. "If we're always playing to the big event or playing to get on the news, then I think you're running a race that puts you behind the curve. They need to be in their districts, they need to have their focus on communicating with their districts."