Political parties often have moments of introspection after an electoral defeat but now House Republicans are experiencing one following a stinging legislative bruising.
GOP members regrouped in Washington Monday still raw after a bitter loss in their high-profile attempt to repeal and replace a health care law they have spent more than seven years fighting. There they continued to point fingers over who was to blame for the bill’s failure and to face the reality of how the episode might impact their aggressive legislative agenda going forward.
Some Republicans are rethinking any previous plans to pass a Republican agenda with just GOP votes, saying that it’s not possible in a House of Representatives with a caucus so ideologically diverse and a conservative faction so opposed to government that they vote against most attempts at legislating.
That was the recipe that scuttled health care.
“You can’t do anything that’s big and controversial that is going to require Republican votes,” said Rep. Mario Diaz Balart, R-Florida, an ally of Republican leadership. “The reality is we don’t have 218 Republican votes. We don’t.”
The number 218 is the number of votes needed to pass legislation (when all House seats are filled.) Republicans hold 237 seats but last week’s implosion of the health care legislation made some members realize that two dozen Republican votes potentially aren’t reliable.
The next major legislative goal after repealing the Affordable Care Act is tax reform and coming up in April is must-pass government funding for the rest of 2017. Both are big items in the Republican must-pass and wish-to-pass agenda.
If a funding bill isn’t passed, the government would shut down. And tax reform is so complex that the last time Congress passed major changes to the tax code was more than 30 years ago.
Such hard questions have only been made more complicated since the party was unable to pass its signature legislation — the repeal of Obamacare — because moderate and conservatives were too far apart and Trump and leadership were unable to bring enough votes to the table.
The original plan was to pass health care repeal and tax reform under a process called reconciliation. The reason is because under reconciliation, only a simple majority is needed in the Senate, and with a simple majority, only Republicans are needed for passage. But after the House failed to pass health care under reconciliation requirements, some members are suggesting to let go of the plan to pass tax reform under reconciliation.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said reconciliation for tax reform should be “re-examined.”
“If you’re doing that, you’re saying you can do that with all Republican votes and dealing the Democrats out from the beginning. That’s fine as long as you’re sure you can get those votes, but nothing I’ve seen so far assures me of that,” Cole said.
When asked about the possibility of a “revolt” if Republicans work with Democrats instead of trying to bring along their most conservative members, Cole said, “I’m sorry, we had a revolt without a bipartisan approach.”
One issue likely to complicate government funding is money for Planned Parenthood. Conservatives intent on defunding it have been willing to bring the government to a brink of a government shutdown under a Democratic president. Some Republicans worry that the same group would be willing to do the same under a Republican president, something Cole called “stupid.”
On tax reform, one component that signifies how difficult it could be to pass is the border adjustability tax, which is a tax on any good or product brought into the U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan says it will incentivize companies to manufacture products in the U.S. to avoid the tax, but President Donald Trump has given mixed messages on his support. And many Republicans in the Senate have been strongly opposed, saying it would start a trade war.
Rep. Mike Coffman, who represents a swing district in Colorado, blamed the House Freedom Caucus as well for the failure of health care, but said that tax reform would be ideologically easier, except the health care flap has made it more difficult.
“I think tax reform is easier to do but not having this done makes it harder to do,” Coffman said. “It’s a momentum issue. The fact is you came out of the fact and you stumbled. I think it slows the momentum and makes it harder.”
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, who just rescinded his membership to the conservative House Freedom Caucus over the weekend because of their dogmatic approach to legislating, said tax reform is going to be difficult.
“I think that is going to be more difficult to change the tax structure of the country than replacing and repealing Obamacare,” Poe said on CNN, adding that the conservatives are going to be inclined to vote against Republican priorities.
Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y. and one of President Donald Trump’s closest allies in Congress, insists that tax reform will be far easier than health care.
“The issues surrounding tax reform are easier,” Collins said. “They are not as emotionally charged as the health care debate.”
But Collins also admitted that tax reform might not be as comprehensive anticipated.
“We’ll get tax reform. Maybe not as quite as grand as we’ve hoped for,” he said.
One option is to work with Democrats instead of relying on just Republicans to pass legislation, which is what moderate Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania suggested, which is why he says Republicans should take up infrastructure reform before tax reform.
“It seems like there will be a little bit of a pivot right now from healthcare to something else. If they asked my opinion, I would tell them, they should pivot to infrastructure,” Dent said. “Why? Because I think it is easier to assemble a bipartisan coalition to do infrastructure than tax reform.”
Many Republicans aren’t as interested in infrastructure as they are in taxes, especially with Trump’s proposed $1 billion price tag. Infrastructure wasn’t in Speaker Ryan’s priority list of agenda items, but it was added at the insistence of the president who campaigned on rebuilding roads, bridges, trains and airports.
Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., one of the most hardline members of the Freedom Caucus who was punished by previous House Speaker John Boehner for his unwillingness to cooperate with the party, dismissed the idea that conservatives are going to make tax reform more difficult.
“We can do tax reform. Nothing’s impossible. We can do anything that’s allowed under our Constitution,” he said. “We can move forward and work on these issues with the American people.”