The GOP has a not great, but still good, week
The pulling of the GOP health-care bill on Friday was a big loss, and perhaps significant beyond its own costs, as it may signal that the “Area 51” sub-caucus within the Freedom Caucus is comprised not so much of conservative Republicans as parties of one with no interest in an agenda shared beyond the space between their own ears. They appear to believe in legislative flying saucers that can appear out of a parallel universe where neither the rules of the Senate broadly nor of budget reconciliation in particular apply. Such extraterrestrial lawmaking doesn’t actually exist, but too many in the Freedom Caucus seem to think it does.
But last week was still, the record must show, a very good one for the conservative cause, and President Trump specifically. Trump promised a worthy successor to Justice Antonin Scalia, and Judge Neil Gorsuch proved to be that in his hearings. Gorsuch also seems to have triggered the return of the political madness of the Harry Reid era. Charles E. Schumer, the new Senate minority leader, has promised a filibuster of Gorsuch, which will oblige Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to invoke the “Reid Rule,” which allows Senate rules and precedents to be changed by simple majority vote. The first application of this rule allowed Democrats to avoid supermajority confirmation of life-tenured federal appellate and district court judges and executive branch nominees. The second application would break the rule about supermajority confirmation of Supreme Court justices. Originalists have long wanted this result. Now we will get it, along with a great originalist justice in Gorsuch.
So Trump had good reason to shake off the rebuff from the Freedom Caucus and the pulling of the health-care bill, and despite his Oval Office aside about being surprised by the lack of loyalty in the caucus, he was loyal to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, as was Ryan to Trump. This bodes well for the party and for governing over the next 18 months.
What doesn’t bode well is the shared decision of president and speaker to advance next on tax reform, with its twin political death traps of abolition of the home mortgage interest deduction and the state and local taxes deduction — Beltway Holy Grails not sought by many, if any, outside of it. A corporate tax cut, yes, and tax simplification, yes, but not two big intraparty crackups in a row.
Better to go for infrastructure, including the border wall, and best of all, the fulfillment of the promise of a 350-ship Navy and the general defense buildup that needs to surround that Trump goal. To that end, though, there needs to be a nomination rush, and soon, in both the Defense and State departments.
It was the good week that could have been much better. Putting a 30-year-plus originalist on the court will be a historymaker. A legislative loss is an inevitability. The latter is disappointing, but the lessons learned along the way are invaluable, even to the Republican members who will be punished in ways large and small in the weeks, months and years ahead. The GOP leadership team needs to keep planning and keep pressing, and the 2018 cycle has to adjust for some casualties from among the inside-the-caucus wreckers who will draw primary challengers and thus be bled before the general. But on the Senate side, where Democrats facing the 2018 midterms were probably hoping for some health-care theatrics in their chamber to wipe away the memory of the Gorsuch hearings, the smiles are forced.
Now, with Aetna’s president voicing what everyone blessed with behind-closeddoors objectivity understands — that the Obamacare “death cycle” is real — the opportunity for health-care reform legislation shifts to the Senate, where the doors of Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Finance Committee, must be open to Patty Murray (Wash.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.), the ranking Democrats on those committees, should the latter want to approach with reform proposals. Democrats face a potential disaster with 25 of their seats up in 2018 and only eight GOP incumbents campaigning.
The urgency to find a fix to Obamacare’s collapse should be on Senate Democrats. If they can find a way to gracefully exit the nightmare of Obamacare without calling it a repudiation of the former president, the Senate GOP should listen and consult with Trump and Ryan about genuine bipartisan compromises. Those could include immigration regularization, targeted infrastructure, tax reform and, of course, the defense buildup via an end to the sequester. A big deal would have to come out of the Senate, and it would have to be mostly — though not exclusively — the GOP’s agenda.
That way, of course, votes the Area 51 sub-caucus off the island. But that’s what they asked for. They prefer their late-night meetings and cold-pizza breakfasts to legislation that addresses the country’s many deep problems. If Alexander and Hatch start meeting with Murray and Wyden, good — not great, but good — things could happen.