After a difficult first half, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan managed to score two major legislative victories this week just before the clock ran out on what has been one of the most contentious Congresses in recent memory.
By marshalling a fractious Republican caucus, the leadership averted a federal government shutdown on the day before Christmas Eve, and also passed the White House’s historic tax reform plan. With America’s lawmakers headed home for the holidays, Trump affixed his signature to the bill Friday morning.
But while Trump delivered on his promise to pass tax reform by year’s end, in the end, Republicans were forced to put off other pressing priorities – like passing an $81 billion disaster aid bill – until January.
Though the House managed to pass a disaster relief package, the Senate was forced to put it off because of procedural hurdles and opposition from Democrats. The battle to amend and pass the bill will probably dominate the political news cycle early next year, according to Bloomberg.
But it’s hardly the only legislative priority demanding immediate attention: Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling. And the continuing resolution passed late last night is set to expire on Jan. 19, meaning another funding bill must be adopted before then.
Back in October, President Trump cancelled protections for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children. Democrats insist that those protections, which were first put in place by Trump’s predecessor, must now be enshrined in law. Trump has offered tepid support for America’s “Dreamers”, but it’s unclear at this point if Republicans will support a deal to keep the DACA protections in exchange for a suite of border-protection measures.
But important questions about military and domestic spending caps, the future of Obamacare and the extension of a controversial warrantless surveillance program - not to mention a long-term fix for CHIP, the children's health-insurance program, will need to be decided before lawmakers turn their attention to the 2018 midterms.
As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, these competing priorities could create headaches for Trump early next year as he pushes for a $1 trillion infrastructure spending plan – his administration’s next big legislative priority.
Republicans will also need to devise a long-term plan for the popular children’s health insurance program. The administration is also hoping to pass its welfare reform plan next year.
At some point, and for the good of the country, I predict we will start working with the Democrats in a Bipartisan fashion. Infrastructure would be a perfect place to start. After having foolishly spent $7 trillion in the Middle East, it is time to start rebuilding our country!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 22, 2017
Given the popularity surrounding infrastructure spending, Trump tweeted on Friday that his infrastructure plan helped break the partisan gridlock that has afflicted Washington since at least the beginning of the Obama administration.
All the unfinished business could impede President Donald Trump’s ability to rack up more legislative victories, including a large-scale infrastructure bill, before the 2018 midterm elections.
“At some point, and for the good of the country, I predict we will start working with the Democrats in a Bipartisan fashion. Infrastructure would be a perfect place to start,” Trump tweeted Friday morning.
Lawmakers have a limited amount of time until they turn their focus to campaigning for re-election. "We need to get the leftovers done," said Ryan Costello, a Pennsylvania Republican. "Until we deal with Groundhog Day, we can’t move on to our agenda."
Leaders were able to corral rank-and-file lawmakers to vote for a bare-bones funding patchwork, and the government now has enough money to operate through Jan. 19.
However, despite Trump’s optimism, the two parties remain far apart on issues like raising the US borrowing limit.
Both parties are expected to return to the negotiating table in early January to try to hammer out a budget cap agreement, raising limits on domestic and defense spending imposed under the 2011 Budget Control Act.
They are far apart.
"We find ourselves no closer to an agreement than we were 11 months ago," Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat, said Thursday.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said that Republicans have sought to increase defense spending by $54 billion and non-defense spending by $37 billion. Democrats find that unacceptable because they want equal increases.
Lawmakers still need to flesh out many details about the debt ceiling, from the size of the increase to making changes to the process of allocating funds. Democrats and Republicans are reportedly far apart on these issues.
Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican and a member of the Appropriations Committee, said that the Democratic formula of "parity" increases made more sense in the days of divided government and less so now that Republicans control Congress and the White House. He argued that increases should be based on demonstrated needs.
In addition to agreeing on spending levels, both sides must resolve whether and how any of the budget cap increases will be paid for. In the past, Congress has tapped federal pensions, crop insurance and Medicare provider payments.
If a budget deal is struck, that outline could clear the way for the House and Senate to flesh out the details of fiscal 2018 spending through a giant trillion-dollar omnibus bill. Budget caps are just the first of many problems Congress faces in January.
As the WSJ points out, even with Republicans’ early stumbles on Obamacare repeal, Trump and his partners in Congress have accomplished a lot, considering that, one year ago, many Republican lawmakers opposed the idea of a Trump presidency, and the president had few relationships with lawmakers from which to draw on.
The defining irony of any new presidential administration, according to WSJ, is that, by the time it gets its bearings, it’s already time for the midterms. Historically, the president’s party loses an average of 32 seats in the House during the midterms. That would be enough for Democrats to regain control of the House. And with Alabama Democrat Doug Jones preparing to take his seat in January, Democrats would only need to pick up two seats to flip the Senate.
Skeptics counter that it will be more difficult to carry that momentum into next year. On Thursday, the House and Senate passed a stopgap spending bill that keeps the government funded through Jan. 19 and punts bigger debates over immigration and spending into January. Next year’s agenda is also expected to include an infrastructure bill and an attempt to overhaul the welfare system.
Action on most of those issues will require Democratic votes in order to pass and will occur in the historically difficult second year of a presidency.
"The irony is during the first term, the president’s opportunity to get things done is earlier on, but by the time the president really figures out the legislative game and gets good at doing this, the window has passed by," said Lori Cox Han, a political science professor at Chapman University.
The Republicans’ challenges will also be complicated by the midterm elections in which they will be fighting to hold their majorities in the House and Senate. Strong Democratic turnout in the November Virginia governor’s race and this month’s special Senate election in Alabama, both of which the Republicans lost, is viewed by both parties as a major threat to the GOP.
"I see a historical trend cutting against us—the average loss of seats is 32 for a president’s first midterm and that’s just the average,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said in an interview this week. “So what I keep telling people is we have the wind at our face, historically speaking."
In a ploy to mitigate the influence of conservative Freedom Caucus Republicans, Trump has tried to forge ties with red-state Democrats. But despite a flurry of dinners and rides on air force one, Senators like Indiana’s Joe Donnelly and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin have refused to break ranks and side with a president who is exceedingly popular in their home states.
Of course, that calculus could change as the midterms draw nearer. Regardless, one thing is clear: Trump has another four months – possibly six at the most – until lawmakers turn their attention to the midterms.
If lawmakers can pass even half of these priorities before then, that would be a major accomplishment in and of itself.