Trump’s Agenda Quickly Collides With Reality on the Hill

From repealing Obamacare to building a border wall funded by Mexico, the president-elect’s campaign priorities have hit some early turbulence.

Health care is one of many issues on which Donald Trump's campaign promises have hit early snags.
AP Photo/Jason Redmond
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
Jan. 9, 2017, 8:01 p.m.

Republicans who fully control Washington for the first time in a decade are facing a rocky path in their quest to undo President Obama’s policies and enact Donald Trump’s.

Nearly every item on the list of priorities and pledges that President-elect Trump and the GOP Congress campaigned on has encountered early turbulence or uncertainty—from rolling back Obamacare and federal regulations to building a border wall, funding infrastructure, and withdrawing from the international climate pact.

The biggest example is Obamacare, as Republicans face internal friction over whether a replacement plan should be offered to go with bills that could pass within weeks to unravel the Affordable Care Act, which has brought coverage to 20 million people.

But recent days have revealed other fault lines and signs that Trump will face hurdles in delivering on some of his promises.

Take his frequent campaign pledge that Mexico would pay for a massive wall along the border.

Trump told The New York Times that he’s now planning to build first and somehow ensure the U.S. is reimbursed by Mexico later, likely through his vow to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. But it’s unclear whether Trump could ever force such payments.

Rolling back regulations is another area where the GOP’s appetite for change is larger than what’s actually on the menu.

Last week, the House passed a GOP bill that would give Congress sweeping powers to nullify regulations issued very late in a president’s term.

But the bill stands almost no chance in the Senate, which means lawmakers and Trump will be able to quickly nix only a relatively small number of Obama’s late-presidency rules using a mid-1990s law called the Congressional Review Act. That means lawmakers face tough choices about which regulations to target for quick repeal.

Trump, to be sure, has other tools to undo various regulations, such as deciding not to defend them in court, or waging lengthy administrative repeals, while he can quickly stop unfinished rules in their tracks.

Trump’s plans for a sweeping infrastructure package, meanwhile, are not on the near-term legislative agenda, as Hill Republicans are wary of spending the kind of money the president-elect and his advisers have touted.

But Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn told reporters Monday in the Capitol that policymaking takes time.

“I know we all like immediate gratification. I certainly do. But it is not always possible, and this is going to take some time,” Cornyn said when asked if voters who backed Republicans will grow dissatisfied at the pace of change in Washington.

Cornyn said Republicans are “absolutely committed” to border security, “believing that that is the result that people were voting for when they voted for Mr. Trump.” He added that there are “a lot more pieces of that puzzle,” such as so-called e-verification and the refugee vetting process.

Asked if he feared voter concern about the implementation of the GOP agenda, Cornyn replied: “I don’t think so. I think they are going to see some immediate relief, particularly on the regulatory front, starting January the 20th. I think there is going to be a lot of activity and they will see a lot of momentum.”

The GOP’s work-in-progress effort to kill the health care law represents the most violent political collision between long-standing Republican goals and the hard politics of achieving them.

The Senate will vote on a budget document this week that paves the way for repealing large portions of the law in the coming weeks with subsequent bills that are immune from Senate filibusters.

But Republicans face internal dissension, as some of their members express concern about the absence—for now—of a plan to replace it with a GOP alternative. (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told CBS on Sunday that a replacement would occur “rapidly” after repeal, but offered no time frame.)

Several high-profile Republicans, including Sens. Rand Paul, Bob Corker, and Tom Cotton, say that lawmakers should be presenting their replacement plan essentially alongside the repeal of the law.

Paul told The Wall Street Journal on Monday that he spoke with Trump on Friday and that the president-elect “agrees completely” with the Kentucky senator’s view that Obamacare repeal and replacement should happen at the same time.

Senate Republicans may speed up their effort to replace some pieces of Obamacare. Cornyn told reporters that the repeal measures that the Finance and Health Committees will craft in the coming weeks might also contain some of the “replace” side of the equation.

“We are actually looking to try to find some way to do that,” Cornyn said. “We are looking to do as much as we can do in the bill, but I am not prepared right now to give you an inventory of those issues, but we are trying to do as much as we can.”

The slow gears of Washington and Trump’s evolving positions could force Republicans into decisions that disappoint some of their most hard-core supporters.

Consider Trump’s plan to abandon the United Nations Paris climate-change pact—the type of pledge that resonates with a hard-right faction that disputes the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming and has no love for the U.N. either.

Trump has waffled on that plan.

Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, said there’s not a clear rationale for trying to quickly take steps toward jettisoning the Paris deal, noting that it does not create binding emissions mandates on nations anyway.

“When you are coming into office and you have got crises that are going to come up that you are totally unaware of at present, it is best to come into office and get your feet on the ground and then figure out which battles to pick. Again, the Paris accord has zero effect on the United States. We are not bound to do anything,” Corker said in the Capitol on Friday.

He predicted that the new administration would not try to bail on the Paris deal on “Day One,” noting that it could instead just neglect it.

“The Trump administration could continue to be ‘a party to it’ and just not invest dollars towards that end. The real issue is not stating whether you are in the accord or not,” he said.

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