After a halting start, the Republican-controlled 115th Congress – sometimes in collaboration with President Donald Trump, often despite him – has enacted surprisingly far-reaching conservative achievements in its first year, among them a long-promised rewrite of the tax code, oil drilling in the Arctic and a series of lifetime appointments to the judiciary.
For the new year, Republican leaders in the House have their sights on decades-old programs for the poor that they say are too easily exploited by those who do not need them. Trump is expected to move forward with a long-promised program to rebuild roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
And Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, is speaking gamely of bipartisanship, especially on legislation to protect young unauthorized immigrants brought to the country as children, whose Obama-era protection from deportation will run out in March.
On Jan. 20, the latest stopgap spending measure expires, giving lawmakers from both parties another chance to force resolutions on outstanding immigration and health care measures, along with efforts to raise caps on military and domestic spending. And an $81 billion package of relief for hurricane and wildfire victims that passed the House last week awaits Senate action.
“I don’t think most of our Democratic colleagues want to do nothing, and there are areas, I think, where we can get bipartisan agreement,” McConnell told reporters Friday.
But all of those plans will play out in an election year that is shaping up as a referendum on Trump, whose historically low approval ratings could deflate any Republican overtures to Democrats not anxious to boost the president.
“Hope springs eternal, but they’d have to be a real reversal from the way they’ve operated now,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader.
McConnell declared 2017 a year of “extraordinary accomplishment,” a boast that only weeks ago seemed impossible. But a year marred by public spats between the president and Republican leaders in Congress was capped off with a rewrite of the tax code that cut corporate tax rates, favored business owners and reduced income tax rates, at least temporarily, for most families. The same law opened Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, a goal sought by Republicans for decades.
It also eliminated tax penalties in the Affordable Care Act intended to force most Americans to have health care. Ending the individual mandate was Republicans’ most direct blow to President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement after a year of misses and ineffectual attacks.
At least for now, the tax bill remains highly unpopular, according to opinion polls. Nevertheless, Trump trumpeted those achievements on Twitter on Sunday. “What an incredible year we had,” he added. “Don’t let the Fake News convince you otherwise.”
Those achievements came after the quiet confirmation of 12 federal appeals court judges – the most in a single year since the appeals courts were established in 1891. The confirmations will remake the federal judiciary, stocking it with young and very conservative judges who will serve for decades to come. And those came along with the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
“With the new administration coming in, it has been more chaotic and more politicized than I would like to think,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said. “But we do have more accomplishments than I think we’re generally given credit for.”
McConnell has warned that 2018 will be difficult. With the election in Alabama of Doug Jones, a Democrat, to the Senate, the Republican majority next year will be 51-49. Senate Republicans are eyeing modest measures in the coming months: to protect “Dreamers,” young unauthorized immigrants; to revise the Obama-era Dodd-Frank financial regulatory law to protect small community banks; and to stabilize health insurance markets by temporarily reinstating insurance subsidies suspended by Trump.
Trump will host McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin at Camp David in the first weekend of January to align on an agenda for 2018, beginning with infrastructure, his legislative director, Marc Short, said on Fox News Sunday.
“Both Democrats and Republicans say that infrastructure is crumbling and we need to fix it,” he said. “But the big question remains: Will Democrats put politics aside and actually work with us? They need to meet us halfway.”
Ryan has bigger ambitions of taking on some of the government’s biggest programs; Republicans have singled out food stamps, welfare and Medicaid.
But after a bruising year, Democrats are leery. Republicans and Democrats had detailed plans to lure corporate profits parked overseas back home, and use some of that revenue to finance an infrastructure push. The new tax law ignored those proposals.
“They used it all to reduce taxes on the wealthiest corporations,” Schumer said.
As for House plans to cut poverty programs, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat, scoffed: “It is just perfect, isn’t it? Tax breaks for the wealthiest people who haven’t punched a time clock in their lives so that we could cut back food stamps for single moms trying to feed hungry kids. Perfect.”
The truth is, even McConnell acknowledged that 2017 was “pretty partisan.”
The choice to make repealing the Affordable Care Act conservatives’ first legislative effort was generally considered a misstep, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. And the half measure that Republicans achieved may destabilize insurance markets.
“The good news is we repealed the individual mandate,” Graham said. “The bad news is we now own health care, for sure.”