The appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel in the ongoing Russian meddling probe may be bad news for President Trump and his associates, but good news for congressional Republicans. It could give them the political space to tackle their major legislative priorities before congressmen head home for an August recess.
And the agenda is daunting – replacing Obamacare, a major tax cut, progress on the Fiscal Year 2018 federal budget, an infrastructure package and passage of a debt ceiling increase.
The drip, drip of news revelations about the Trump’s team entanglements with Russians has distracted the White House and seemingly delayed any substantive tax proposal. The House narrowly passed an Obamacare replacement bill, with Trump’s support, but that legislation has bogged down in the Senate. The Trump FY 2018 budget proposal was pronounced dead on arrival on Capitol Hill, at least in part for what critics call a $2 trillion math error on how to pay for a major tax cut.
GOP congressional leaders felt under the gun to intensify committee probes into Trump’s Russian connections, until the Department of Justice appointed Mueller to lead the criminal investigation. Many Hill Republicans are hopeful that, with the investigative burden shifting from Congress to Mueller, they can focus less on the scandal and more on addressing their list of looming deadlines and campaign promises – a long list that Congress has made little headway on achieving.
However, the breathing space they now have still may not be enough time to pass their legislative agenda.
Senate leadership staff huddles this week to begin drafting from scratch a new alternative to the House-passed American Health Care Act (AHCA). The Senate has the benefit of the Congressional Budget Office score, which estimates 23 million people would lose health insurance over the next decade. New public opinion polls indicate Obamacare is more popular than the AHCA. Even if they are successful, it make take time to ensure all the details fit together.
On the other side of Capitol Hill, House appropriators are trying to figure out how to keep the government’s doors open when the new fiscal year begins October 1. Delayed action on fiscal 2017 spending, combined with the GOP’s decision to start with a health care overhaul, has put Congress months behind schedule on appropriations for FY 2018.
House appropriators are weighing an ambitious plan to pass a 12-bill omnibus appropriations package ahead of the August recess. Given the very late start, appropriators would need to mark up their respective bills at a record pace to bring a full package to the floor before July 31. Even if they can pull off this monumental task, they will face an even bigger political hurdle garnering the necessary Democratic votes in the Senate.
Democrats retain some leverage in both the House and Senate in regard to passing a debt ceiling increase, which GOP conservatives won’t support, even though failure to raise the debt ceiling could result in US default on loans. How much leverage Democrats have and what they will use it for remains unknown.
Hope of passing tax and infrastructure legislation before August is dim, but getting a health care bill and an FY 2018 budget approved but the August recess would improve odds for addressing those issues by the end of the year.
While Mueller’s appointment gives breathing room to GOP lawmakers to work on their priorities, success is still tied to Trump and his ability to focus on advancing legislation without more self-inflicted controversy, such as his unsolicited comment about spending more on health care even though the AHCA, which he supported, would spend less.
Michael Skipper is CFM’s Federal Affairs Associate. Before joining the team in Washington, D.C., Michael worked on state affairs in Oregon, where he also studied political science and environmental policy at OSU. In his free time, Michael enjoys traveling, reading and spending time with friends and family. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Garrett, who will be CFM’s Manager, Federal Affairs, can be reached at his CFM email address: email@example.com.