CAPITOL HILL - A rare opportunity for one party to pull all the levers of power in Washington, commenced Tuesday, with the swearing in of the Republican controlled 115th Congress, a little more than two weeks before Republican Donald Trump takes the presidential oath of office. Republican leaders promise a busy first 100 days as they try to institute sweeping changes in the role government plays in the lives of the American people.
Still, the ambitious Republican plans to transform health care, reform taxes and cut spending are not assured. For the new president, success might be defined by priorities that do not necessarily align with those of Republican lawmakers.
“What Donald Trump is going to want is his big tax cut, combined with his promise of a big increase in defense (spending), combined with as much as he can do with an infrastructure plan and to be able to declare victory on sweeping things by the end of his first 100 days,” Norm Ornstein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told VOA.
For voters who put a unified government in power, success will mean congressional action on Trump’s popular campaign trail message on immigration and a push to improve the economy and create jobs, considered the top issue in the 2016 campaign.
Congress is expected to vote even before Trump takes office to dismantle President Obama’s health care plan. With only a slim majority over Democrats in the Senate, Republicans and Trump might be forced to acquiesce to popular aspects of the so-called Obamacare, which made it possible for 20 million people to buy health insurance.
“There’ll be enough Senate Democrats to ball up the process if they choose to – to what end though?” Mitch McConnell told reporters about anticipated budget battles at a year-end Senate news conference.
On the Senate side, confirmation hearings of Trump’s cabinet appointees will be the first order of business, when both parties are expected to ask tough questions: from Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson’s ties to Vladimir Putin to Ben Carson’s lack of government experience as he seeks to head Housing and Urban Development and Rick Perry’s appointment to lead the Department of Energy, an agency he once said should be abolished.
Trump is expected to act quickly in filling a long vacant Supreme Court seat, a move that would complete conservative control of all three branches of government and also would require Senate confirmation.
House Republican plans
In his first post election news conference, House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters the election delivered a mandate for “unified Republican government.” The blueprint for that unified government will be Ryan’s own “A Better Way” agenda, a long planned policy strategy that rolls back government regulations and transforms the federal government's approach to poverty and the social safety net.
Democrats pledge to fight Paul Ryan’s long held plans to cut key entitlement programs, such as medical care for the elderly and the poor.
“Democrats in Congress and millions of Americans across the country are going to make it very, very clear – hands off Medicare,” House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters at her year-end news conference, speaking of government's delivery of health care to seniors.
And Ryan could clash with Trump if he decides to push forward on those cuts – while Trump could be at odds with Republicans concerned about his proposals to renegotiate international trade deals and rebuild infrastructure like roads and bridges -- both of which bear more resemblance to Democratic Party policies.“It will be interesting to see how this is put together,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters at a news briefing in mid-December. “I hope we avoid a trillion dollar stimulus.”
In a move that could signal a break on party orthodoxy on tariffs, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters at an end of year briefing, “I don’t want to get into some kind of trade war.”
The working relationship between Trump and Ryan will be a key element in Republican legislative success on the Hill. After a contentious campaign season, Trump and Ryan set aside their differences in the name of Republican unity.
“He is like a fine wine,” Trump said of House Speaker Paul Ryan at a victory rally in Wisconsin in mid-December. “Every day goes by, I get to appreciate his genius more and more.”
Trump said some of the “amazing things” he and Ryan would work on together would include taxes, Obamacare and building a border wall between the United States and Mexico. But he went on to warn, “Now, if he ever goes against me, I’m not going to say that.”
“We know that many of the things Trump has promised are not things that Republicans in Congress particularly want,” said Ornstein. “The question becomes how much will Trump – frustrated by Congress not doing what he wants - act on his own executive action.”
The answer to that question could determine if Republicans stay unified well past the first 100 days of a Trump presidency.