Republicans heading home for August recess will have little to report back to their base after the first six months of a GOP-controlled Washington.
Not only have they failed to make meaningful headway on their own legislative goals of health care—barring an unexpected breakthrough this week—and tax reform, they’ve also barely cracked the book on the agenda President Trump ran on in 2016, which included infrastructure overhaul and an a border wall.
GOP strategists eyeing a difficult midterm map say they’re still optimistic about scoring legislative wins between now and next November, but vulnerable members returning home have few options for dealing with a base that’s hungry for action now. As lawmakers head back to their districts next month, party strategists laid out a playbook of focusing on local achievements, stressing wins around the corner on health care and tax reform, and highlighting Democratic obstructionism.
“They just wants to see action, and they’re not interested in excuses,” one GOP House strategist said of the Republican base. “You’ve got to do two things: Focus on what you’ve accomplished—either locally or nationally—and you have to make it a choice.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell echoed that sentiment last week when asked how senators would explain to voters if their chamber failed to pass a bill repealing Obamacare before August recess, which has already been delayed by two weeks.
“We have a new Supreme Court justice, we have 14 repeals of regulations, and we’re only six months into it,” McConnell told reporters. “Last time I looked Congress goes on for two years. We’ll be moving on to comprehensive tax reform [and] infrastructure, there’s much more left to be done for the American people, and we’re ready to tackle it.”
Among strategists, the idea of moving past health care without a win has already drawn some skeptics.
“The risk of alienating your base voter heading into the midterms is greater than any potential harm that could come from passing legislation that isn’t perfect,” said GOP strategist Dan Judy said of the Senate’s most recent repeal and replace proposal.
“When Republicans have been promising to do something for seven years they need to keep that promise, and voters are going to hold them accountable, particularly Republican voters,” said Judy.
Even Trump ribbed Republicans at a White House lunch last week, saying “inaction” on health care is “not an option,” and joking that holdouts on a bill to repeal and replace should get on board if they wanted to remain in the Senate. The president has called on senators to stay for the entirely of August recess, if necessary, to pass a bill that would both repeal and replace the existing legislation.
But plenty of Republicans see more potential in tackling other priorities first, like tax reform, where they believe the party is more united.
“We know what motivates the base: cutting taxes, repealing Obamacare and taking care of the troops,” said the House strategist. “But the most important thing is cutting middle class taxes. If they do that, everyone will do great next year.”
House Republicans also took their first steps toward another top priority of the base earlier this month, when the Appropriations Committee released a homeland security budget with funds to begin construction on Trump’s wall on along the Mexico border.
But without any big legislative wins to take home this August, Republicans on both sides of the Capitol may be stuck leaning hardest on a combination of local achievements and casting blame on Democrats.
Senate Republicans and Trump have both bemoaned Senate Democrats’ efforts to slow-walk his nominations, with Trump repeatedly labeling them “obstructionists” for Twitter. (Democrats push back that Trump’s nominees have required extensive vetting, and that he’s nominated people at a slower pace than previous presidents.)
House Republicans have also found success deflecting attention on Democrats, pointing to a string of special election victories during the middle of the their own health care scramble.
“On the House side, we’re very lucky because Nancy Pelosi will turn out the base,” said the House strategist.