WASHINGTON — With senators having wrapped up business for the month and joining the House on recess, they're leaving behind a highly unproductive first half of the year. The Trump agenda has barely moved, despite the GOP enjoying a majority in both chambers of Congress and a Republican in the White House.
Republicans set out an ambitious agenda after President Trump’s surprising win in November. Lawmakers vowed to repeal Obamacare, reform the tax code, build up the nation's crumbling infrastructure and help Trump build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. GOP leaders also promised to crack down on illegal immigration and roll back the banking regulations in the Dodd-Frank Act.
While the House has passed a few of those measures, none of the agenda items have passed the Senate. Instead, the single biggest piece of legislation passed out of both the House and Senate and signed into law by Trump — though begrudgingly — is a bipartisan bill that would increase sanctions on Russia and puts safeguards in place to keep the president from loosening them.
“We’re getting nothing done. All we’ve really done this year is confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on the floor late last month after a dramatic return to Washington following a brain cancer diagnosis. The conservative Gorsuch was only put on the court after Republicans changed Senate rules to allow Supreme Court nominees to be confirmed by a simple majority, rather than the usual 60-vote threshold.
“Democrats made it their goal in life to obstruct everything that we tried to do and that the administration tried to do. I think that’s probably the single major reason,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas told reporters last week when asked why more wasn’t accomplished in the first half of the year.
At various points within the year, Democrats did slow-walk Senate business, particularly on some of Trump’s nominees and GOP efforts to repeal Obamacare. However, in the most high-profile legislative fail, Republicans proved to be their own worst enemy.
After the stunning defeat to Republican-led efforts to repeal Obamacare at the end of July, the president blamed “3 Republicans and 48 Democrats” for letting “the American people down.” No Democrats supported the GOP’s attempts to roll back the law, but that wasn’t why the bill failed.
In their party-line effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the GOP — which has a narrow 52-48 majority — used a special Senate procedure that would allow it to pass with just 51 votes. If Vice President Pence cast the tie-breaking vote, that number of senators could drop to 50.
But even that proved impossible. GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and McCain joined Democrats in voting against the measure.
“It’s pretty obvious that our problem on health care was not the Democrats; we didn’t have 50 Republicans,” McConnell told reporters last week.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., told reporters that GOP senators might have been able to accomplish more if they had taken up their legislative priorities in a different order.
“In hindsight, truthfully, we started on the right issue, which was regulatory reform. The next thing we should’ve taken up is tax reform, but we took up Obamacare," Johnson said just before the Senate broke for recess last week.
The conservative senator said he was not satisfied with what the Senate had accomplished this year. He did point to a series of reversals of Obama-era regulations Congress had pushed through as successes that had not gotten enough attention.
Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a member of GOP leadership, told reporters that the Senate had been productive and it just was a slower timeline.
“We got a lot of things done,” Hatch said. “Like massaging almost all of these problems that we have and getting them in a position where we may be able to work on them. I mean it’s a lot of work to do, legislation. One bill alone can take the whole year and right now it is.”
The House, which has a larger GOP majority, 240-194, has cranked out a series of bills that go along with the Trump agenda, including a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare and the rollback of Dodd-Frank regulations, which aimed to prevent Wall Street from sparking another recession but has been criticized by conservatives as a government takeover of the financial services industry. Both of those efforts fell flat when they reached the Senate.
“We’re pretty frustrated with the slow pace of things (in the Senate), but in the House, we’ve actually done most of our agenda except for welfare reform and tax reform,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told the Wisconsin State Journal in a Thursday interview. “There’s just been a lot of distractions out there, whether it’s Russia, or tweeting, or whatever.”
In late July, the House passed a security-themed spending bill that included $1.6 billion to begin construction of a wall along about 70 miles of the 2,000-mile Southwest border. However, Democrats have already warned that they will oppose the funding in the Senate, where Republicans need Democratic support to pass spending bills.
“They have to figure out what they can do, we’ve shown what we can do,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., told reporters after the health care bill failed in the Senate. “This is a problem the Senate has to solve for itself. We can, you know, wish them well, we can root for them, we can yell at them, but in the end we can’t do it for them.”
Senate rules mean that most pieces of legislation — except those attempted through budgetary procedures, like the Obamacare repeal — require 60 votes to pass. As Trump’s poll numbers continue to drop, Democrats, even those from states Trump won by double digits, are seeing fewer benefits to voting with the GOP and Trump.
Trump won West Virginia by 42 points, and Sen. Joe Manchin is close with the president and his Republican colleagues. But even the West Virginia Democrat — who is one of the most moderate lawmakers in the Senate — would not side with the president on health care.
“He asked me to support the health care initiative, and I said I want to work with you and work with everybody to fix and repair what we have in front of us,” Manchin said. “But voting to repeal it, I just didn’t think it was going to happen.”
Manchin told USA TODAY that the two haven’t talked since the last conversation, which was about six weeks ago. Before that, they were talking at least every two weeks, according to Manchin spokesman Jonathan Kott.
“I have not spoken to him recently. I hope he understands, I haven’t been able to,” Manchin said.