GOP fail­ure on health care is a hint of what’s to come

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Paul Wald­man Paul Wald­man is a con­trib­u­tor to The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Plum Line blog, and a se­nior writer at The Amer­i­can Prospect.

Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell sug­gested on Mon­day that af­ter the fail­ure of the bill to re­peal and re­place the Af­ford­able Care Act, the Se­nate might re­an­i­mate “re­peal and de­lay,” in which law­mak­ers pass a re­peal of the ACA with a tick­ing clock, forc­ing them to pass a re­place­ment at some later date. Well, it took all of half a day, but now that idea is dead, too, be­cause mul­ti­ple Repub­li­can sen­a­tors have come out against it.

One way to in­ter­pret this fail­ure is that Repub­li­cans were un­done by an ig­no­rant, er­ratic, feck­less pres­i­dent who couldn’t be both­ered to help them pass the bill. There’s some truth in that story — Pres­i­dent Donald Trump’s in­dif­fer­ence and buf­foon­ery cer­tainly didn’t do them any fa­vors. But the real fail­ure be­longs to Repub­li­cans in Congress, both the lead­er­ship and the rank and file. And now, as they try to sal­vage their agenda in what will be an un­usu­ally chal­leng­ing few months, they could be un­done by the same weak­nesses that ren­dered them un­able to pass their health care bill.

Let’s have a look at what they’re fac­ing:

The debt ceil­ing. Be­fore Barack Obama be­came pres­i­dent, the debt ceil­ing was lit­tle more than a pe­ri­odic op­por­tu­nity for some con­se­quence-free pos­tur­ing. As it ap­proached, mem­bers of the op­po­si­tion party would give a few speeches rail­ing against the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s freespend­ing ways, then Congress would vote to raise the ceil­ing, with a few of the op­po­si­tion mem­bers cast­ing protest votes against the in­crease. No one even con­sid­ered not rais­ing the ceil­ing as a se­ri­ous pos­si­bil­ity, as that would be cat­a­clysmic — if the United States were no longer pay­ing its debts, it could set off a world­wide fi­nan­cial cri­sis.

That is, un­til the Tea Party came to town, with a “tear it all down” phi­los­o­phy and a ha­tred of Obama that burned with the fire of a thou­sand suns. So we had debt ceil­ing crises in 2011 and 2013 in which there was a se­ri­ous pos­si­bil­ity that the GOP would refuse to in­crease the ceil­ing and the gov­ern­ment would go into de­fault.

Which brings us to­day. The debt-ceil­ing in­crease must be passed by Oc­to­ber, but the ad­min­is­tra­tion can’t even de­cide it­self whether to have a “clean” vote without strings at­tached.

The bud­get. On Tues­day, the House Bud­get Com­mit­tee re­leased a blue­print of the House bud­get, and in many ways it’s anal­o­gous to what gave them such dif­fi­culty on health care: It in­cludes sav­age cuts to do­mes­tic pro­grams that are po­lit­i­cally per­ilous and will cause reser­va­tions among House mod­er­ates and threaten the bill’s chances in the Se­nate, yet are none­the­less de­cried by House con­ser­va­tives as not cruel enough, all jus­ti­fied by us­ing un­re­al­is­tic pre­dic­tions about the fu­ture.

There are big cuts to pro­grams such as Med­i­caid and food stamps, and this bill would even move for­ward on House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s fan­tasy of turn­ing Medi­care into a voucher pro­gram. In other words, it pro­vides am­ple tar­gets for Democrats to charge that it’s an­other at­tack on the safety net while it helps out Wall Street and paves the way for a tax cut for the wealthy.

Tax re­form. Be­cause of pro­ce­dural rules, Repub­li­cans need to pass the bud­get in or­der to use rec­on­cil­i­a­tion for tax re­form, which would en­able them to pass a tax bill with only 50 votes in the Se­nate. But even if they pass the bud­get, tax re­form is go­ing to be ex­traor­di­nar­ily dif­fi­cult, be­cause it will pit var­i­ous Repub­li­can con­stituen­cies against each other, all want­ing to pre­serve the tax breaks and loop­holes their lob­by­ists have so painstak­ingly writ­ten over the years.

It turns out that leg­is­lat­ing is hard — who knew! — and in or­der to be suc­cess­ful at it, you need a num­ber of things: an un­der­stand­ing of the process, skill at wran­gling your mem­bers, a rel­a­tively uni­fied cau­cus in both houses, a pres­i­dent who can in­ter­vene suc­cess­fully at key mo­ments and the sup­port of the pub­lic for the sub­stance of what you’re try­ing to do. Repub­li­cans’ fail­ure so far to pass any ma­jor leg­is­la­tion is a re­sult of their lack of some or all of those re­quire­ments. And there’s lit­tle rea­son to think they’re go­ing to have an eas­ier time from this point on.

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