Intraparty Disputes Stall Republicans' Legislative Agenda

By Kristina Peterson and Richard Rubin Features Dow Jones Newswires

The Republican-controlled Congress is struggling to overcome intraparty fissures that have been expanding since the rise of the Tea Party in 2010, threatening to derail their legislative ambitions this year.

Continue Reading Below

On Tuesday, Senate GOP leaders opted to delay a vote on their bill that would dismantle and replace much of former President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act in the face of resistance among Senate Republicans over the bill's policy planks.

Just hours earlier, across the Capitol, House Republicans decided to punt until after the July 4 recess on unveiling their budget for fiscal 2018 -- a necessary prerequisite for their push to overhaul the tax code without Democratic votes -- to iron out their own differences.

The delays bogging down marquee elements of the GOP agenda left Republicans and President Donald Trump with little legislative achievements after nearly six months in power. Republicans, who control the executive and legislative branches for the first time since early 2007, have dwindling time to make significant policy changes before the 2018 midterm-election politics overwhelm the Capitol.

"It's almost like we're serving in the minority right now. We just simply don't know how to govern," said Rep. Steve Womack (R., Ark.). "How we've been given this opportunity to govern and we are finding every reason in the world not to is absolutely incredible to me."

Democrats, who are united in opposition to GOP plans, said Republicans' stalled agenda reflected GOP leaders' inability to wrest compromise from the dueling factions of their party.

Continue Reading Below

"There's virtually nothing to show for six months of so-called Republican leadership" said Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), noting that House Republicans need the support of their most conservative wing to pass a budget. "They're going to have a tough time doing it."

The biggest setback Tuesday came in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said he would move a vote expected this week on the GOP health-care bill until after next week'sJuly 4 recess in the face of continued opposition from both centrist and conservative Republicans. Just hours before that decision, his top lieutenant, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, was insisting that the first vote would happen Wednesday.

Lawmakers will now have to face energized opponents of their bill at home next week, compounding the political challenge of securing the support of 50 GOP senators to pass the bill. After its own fits-and-starts, the House passed its own version of the bill last month, and it's far from certain that House members would rubber-stamp a Senate bill and send it to Mr. Trump.

Asked about the possibility that members could bolt over recess under pressure from activists at town halls, Mr. McConnell, emerging from a hastily called meeting at the White House with Senate Republicans, all but shrugged. "Some members have town halls and some don't, we'll see what happens," he said.

Mr. McConnell has aimed to pass the GOP bill with only Republican votes. Senate Democrats support the ACA and argue that Congress should fix its glitches. On Tuesday, Mr. McConnell warned his colleagues that voting against this plan will give Democrats more sway in future legislative efforts.

Pushing the contentious Senate health-care vote into July likely moves action on all of the GOP's other legislative priorities to later in the year. Most notably, the effort to revamp the U.S. tax system may slow as a result, despite Republicans' insistence they can complete a major tax bill this year.

To get to a tax bill that can also pass on a party-line vote, Republicans have to finish the health bill, one way or the other, and then complete a budget resolution that unlocks the speedier procedures known as reconciliation for the tax bill.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) said the longer the health debate, "the more difficult it is going to be to do true tax reform."

One other roadblock in the tax effort is the intraparty dispute slowing the progress of the House GOP budget.

Although House Republicans have agreed on the overall spending levels for military and non-military spending for fiscal year 2018, they remain divided over how big a cut to include for mandatory spending, the federal government's spending on big safety-net programs such as Medicaid, food stamps and welfare.

Many House Republicans want to trim at least $200 billion over 10 years from mandatory spending, with some conservatives pushing for as much as $300 billion. But lawmakers said GOP leaders are concerned that if they set an ambitious goal and then fail to meet it, that could derail the budget process that would enable Republicans to pass a tax-code overhaul without Democratic support.

"To the extent that we put in significant entitlement changes, particularly for low and moderate income people, that would make the task of tax reform much harder," said Rep. Charlie Dent (R., Pa.), a key GOP centrist.

But conservatives argued that the budget process and the procedural shortcuts it offers may be the only way to lock in spending cuts they have long sought but rarely secured from the biggest portion of the federal budget, where spending cuts are politically difficult.

Republicans said they were confident they would resolve the budget dispute early next month.

"Chairman Black is 100% committed to getting a budget done," William Allison, a spokesman for Budget Committee Chairwoman Diane Black (R., Tenn.) said Tuesday. "The committee plans to keep this process moving after the July 4th recess."

With Congress in session only three weeks in July, lawmakers will face a crush of major policy deadlines before their August recess.

In addition to the health-care debate in the Senate and the budget action in the House, Treasury Department officials have urged lawmakers to raise the federal government's borrowing limit before August to avoid any threat of defaulting on the debt. Many Republicans in recent years have balked at raising the debt limit, giving Democrats leverage in the vote.

GOP leaders are also expected to negotiate with Democrats over spending bills needed to keep the government running after its current funding expires on Oct. 1. And Republicans haven't yet agreed on either the broad strokes or fine details of their tax agenda.

"It's frustrating," said Rep. Roger Williams (R., Texas). "We've got to begin to get things done."

--Siobhan Hughes and Natalie Andrews contributed to this article.

Write to Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com and Richard Rubin at richard.rubin@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 27, 2017 20:20 ET (00:20 GMT)