WASHINGTON — A brutal reality is settling over Capitol Hill: The Republican effort to repeal and replace “Obamacare,” which has consumed the first six months of the Trump administration, may never yield results.
Not only that, the GOP goal of overhauling the tax code requires passing a budget that is months overdue. That means success on the tax front is highly uncertain, despite happy talk from House Speaker Paul Ryan and others.
Promised infrastructure legislation is nowhere.
And a government shutdown already looms as a possibility in the fall, given slow movement on the annual spending bills needed to fund government. Money for President Donald Trump's border wall, which faces certain opposition from Senate Democrats, looms as a major land mine. Then there's the possibility of a market-shattering default if Congress fails to increase the nation's borrowing authority.
All in all, Republicans are finding that control of the levers of power is not all that they hoped. Instead of a bold governing agenda, all they've delivered so far is a new Supreme Court justice and some regulatory rollbacks.
The confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch to a lifetime appointment remains highly consequential. But the absence of other achievements has Republicans feeling increasingly hopeless as they stare into an abyss of their own making, with the strong likelihood of more failures to come and little on the horizon to cheer them.
“We're just in some quicksand right now. We just can't seem to free ourselves to outcomes that are consistent with what we all campaigned on,” said Republican Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas. “When you're in a governing majority you need to find a way to get to ‘yes.’”
As Senate Republicans churned over health care in recent weeks, with opposition from left and right killing off one plan after another, frustrated lawmakers groused about how much time they had wasted and how little they'd achieved.
One senator even suggested that Republicans now resemble the thing they hate most: the Democrats who cut backroom deals to enact the Affordable Care Act in the first place.
“It's beginning to feel a lot like how Obamacare came together, if you want to know the truth, where it felt like, you know, they were bidding with various people to get them on board,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. The whole situation is beginning to “lack coherency,” Corker said.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has promised the Senate will finally vote next week to open debate on a health care bill, but at the moment no one seems to know whether they'll be voting just to repeal Obamacare or also to replace it, and if so, with what. And, the vote could certainly end up getting postponed.
“We don't know what it is so I can't answer that question until I find out what it is,” said Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, a key Republican holdout on the bill, after reporters waited for him outside the small cafeteria in the Senate basement to ask him how he would vote. “You gotta ask the leadership about that.”
But leadership didn't have the answers either. Asked whether senators would get to know the plan before they vote, No. 2 Senate Republican John Cornyn replied, “That's a luxury we don't have.” Later, his spokesman Drew Brandewie said Cornyn was referring to the unpredictability of the final shape of the bill after amendment votes.
Still, Cornyn's comment was reminiscent of a notorious remark by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during the Affordable Care Act debate in 2010: “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what's in it.” Although the comment was out of context, Republicans have dredged it up ever since to bludgeon Pelosi and the Democrats.
And now Republicans themselves are the ones twisting arms in an effort to ram through a poorly understood plan.
Those seven years of unified GOP opposition to “Obamacare” led many Republicans to believe it would be easy to repeal the law. Trump certainly thought so, proclaiming time and again he would do so on Day One.
Instead it's starting to look like Obamacare is here to stay.
One missing ingredient in the whole agenda is presidential leadership. With the White House distracted continually by various controversies, especially the Russia investigation, Trump has not made the case to the country for passing the health care bill or other priorities. He hasn't traveled to swing states, or used the campaign-style rallies he delights in to promote specific bills.
Even supporters in Congress want to see that change.
Said Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., “Maybe Air Force One needs to land in a few states in August.”
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