Republicans see progress despite losses
Leave for long recess with only small gains
Republicans haven’t scored a marquee legislative win for President Trump, but as they prepare to leave Capitol Hill for their summer vacation, they insist they have made serious gains on many nuts-and-bolts bills to reshape the government.
Failure to get a health care bill passed was a significant blow, and tax reform — the other bigticket reform that congressional Republicans had pledged — is struggling to gain footing.
But Republicans said they have taken major steps to rein in Obama-era regulations, approved legislation over President Trump’s wishes to sanction Russia, confirmed a Supreme Court justice, revamped the Veterans Affairs Department and avoided a government shutdown.
“We lost on the big issues. … The headlines are about the big issues and not the bipartisan stuff that we do,” said Sen. Tim Scott, South Carolina Republican.
Entering the year with control over the White House and both chambers of Congress for the first time since 2006, Republicans had grand plans. Repealing and replacing Obamacare was to be first, followed by tax reform, an infrastructure package, a crackdown on sanctuary cities and tort reform.
Some of those — including a hard-won health care overhaul — have cleared the House, but none has cleared the Senate, leaving House Republicans steaming.
“A lot of us here in the House were gearing up again to do the hard work and try to make the mechanics and the dollars and the demographics work, and we wake up the next morning and the rug’s been pulled out again by the Senate,” Rep. David Schweikert, Arizona Republican, said in the wake of last week’s failed health care vote in the Senate.
The House left for its five-week summer break last week.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, had planned to keep his chamber in session for an extra two weeks to work on nominations and other business, but the Senate adjourned Thursday — a week ahead of that modified schedule — with no real floor business scheduled until after Labor Day.
Leaders planned a series of pro forma sessions in the coming weeks, which would prevent Mr. Trump from making recess appointments.
Instead of the big items, congressional Republicans counted repealing more than a dozen Obama-era rules using a law called the Congressional Review Act and confirming Justice Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court as wins.
“I think we’ve gotten a lot done, particularly on the regulatory side,” said Sen. John Kennedy, Louisiana Republican. “I was disappointed we didn’t get the health care bill done, but we’re not giving up. We’ll be back.”
The regulatory rollbacks were approved on partisan votes but were able to clear because under the rules they required only a majority in the Senate — meaning Democrats couldn’t use the filibuster.
The bipartisan accomplishments so far this year include giving the VA more powers to fire employees for poor performance, and imposing sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea.
Even nominations — usually a perfunctory piece of business in the Senate — have turned partisan. Democrats have forced the chamber to go through procedural hoops that have left the administration without a number of key posts filled.
Democrats blamed the Russia investigation, Mr. Trump’s timetable, the Republicans’ handling of the health care debate and other reasons for the stalling. But the fever seemed to break this week as Democrats allowed FBI Director Christopher Wray and a series of midlevel nominees across government to clear.
“We know we still have more to do … but we’re passing critical legislation, we’re confirming nominees to important positions, we’re taking steps in the right direction,” Mr. McConnell said.
Democrats said Republicans earned the slowdown by trying to push an Obamacare repeal through the fast-track budget process — the same method Democrats used to approve the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
“You can’t avoid regular order when you want to and then say Democrats should use regular order whenever you want us to,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “But now that health care is done, I think we can tie the two together — normal way of legislating, clearing noncontroversial nominees as we move forward in September.”
Democrats warned Republicans against returning to the fast-track process for tax reform this fall.
Instead, they urged Republicans to try more bills like the Russia sanctions legislation, which cleared both chambers on overwhelming votes.
Both parties consider that a win, but Mr. Trump called the sanctions bill an ill-timed and unconstitutional meddling in his presidential foreign policy powers.
The White House said Mr. Trump signed the bill “in the interest of national unity,” despite the faults he found with it.
Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, said his party made a mistake with its legislative priorities by going to health care first rather than tax reform.
“In hindsight, I think truthfully we started on the right issue, which was regulatory reform,” he said. The “next thing we should have taken up was tax reform.”
He said the lack of action is a black eye for Congress. “It’s not good enough. We’ve got to do better,” he said.
Asked to rate the productivity level of the Republican-controlled Congress for the first half of the year, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said, “I think the first six months have been trying months for all of us.”
When asked if things would change in the fall, Ms. Feinstein crossed her fingers as elevator doors closed on her.