Congressional lawmakers begin returning to Washington on Monday after a tense week-long recess in which Republicans got an earful about ObamaCare and other issues and ahead of President Trump’s first speech to a joint session of Congress.
With the GOP controlling both chambers of Congress and now the White House, Republican lawmakers’ first trip home this session could have been a victory lap. They were instead accused in the media of having done little in roughly their first three weeks. And several were confronted at town hall meetings about plans to replace ObamaCare if and when it’s dismantled.
The president will have his say Tuesday night. Majority Republicans in the House and Senate will be closely watching the prime-time address for guidance, marching orders or any specifics Trump might embrace on health care or taxes, areas where some of his preferences remain a mystery.
Treasure Secretary Steve Mnuchin on Sunday told Fox News that the speech will include Trump’s plan for corporate and individual tax reform. He also suggested that the president is not sold on House Republicans’ so-called “border tax adjustment plan” to tax exports to essentially offset proposed tax cuts.
Trump is expected to deliver his fiscal 2018 budget to Congress in mid-March.
Congressional Republicans insist they are working closely with the new administration as they prepare to start taking votes on health legislation, with the moment finally upon them to make good on seven years of promises to repeal and replace ObamaCare.
House Republicans hope to pass their legislation by early April and send it to the Senate, with action there also possible before Easter.
Republicans will be “keeping our promise to the American people,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said as he sent lawmakers home for the Presidents Day recess armed with informational packets to defend planned GOP changes to the health law.
However, the recess was dominated by raucous town halls in which Republicans — including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Virginia Rep. Dave Brat, a favorite of the Tea Party movement — faced tough questions about their plans to replace the far-reaching law with a new system built around tax credits, health savings accounts and high-risk pools.
Among the important, unanswered questions are what will be the overall cost and how many people will be covered.
There’s also uncertainty about how to resolve divisions among states over Medicaid money, with at least a couple of GOP plans circulating, including one by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford.
The lack of clarity created anxiety among voters who peppered the lawmakers from coast to coast with questions about what would become of their own health coverage and that of their friends and family.
It has forced Republicans to offer assurances that they don’t intend to take away the law and leave nothing in its place, even though some House conservatives favor doing just that.
“I think we have a responsibility in Washington to try to make the system better,” GOP Rep. Leonard Lance told an overflow crowd last week in his politically divided New Jersey district.
Many Republicans say that how they will handle health legislation will set the stage for the next big battle, over taxes. And the GOP’s early plans for major infrastructure bill do not appear on the table.
Senators also will be weighing the nomination of federal appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court. Hearings soon will get under way in the Senate Judiciary Committee; floor action is expected before Easter.
Despite Gorsuch’s sterling credentials, Democrats are under pressure from their liberal supporters to oppose him, given voters’ disdain for Trump and the GOP’s refusal last year to allow even a hearing for Obama’s nominee for the high court vacancy, federal appeals Judge Merrick Garland.
Yet some Democrats are already predicting that one way or another, Gorsuch will be confirmed. Even if he doesn’t pick up the 60 votes he needs, McConnell could use a procedural gambit to eliminate Democrats’ ability to filibuster Gorsuch, an outcome that Trump has endorsed.
The Senate has confirmed 14 Cabinet and Cabinet-level officials, fewer than other presidents at this point.
Next up will be financier Wilbur Ross for Commerce secretary, Rep. Ryan Zinke to lead the Interior Department, retired neurosurgeon and 2016 GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson to be Housing secretary and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry at the Energy Department.
How Democrats vote will be telling, given the extreme pressures on them to oppose Trump at every turn.