Congressional Recess, Full Plate Keep the Heat on GOP Lawmakers

By Siobhan Hughes and Janet Hook Features Dow Jones Newswires

Congressional Republicans plan to use the next four weeks away from Washington making a public case for a sweeping rewrite of the tax code, an ambitious legislative undertaking they hope will heal divisions that opened when the party's signature health-care bill collapsed.

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But at home in their districts, they face pressures that could make it hard to focus on taxes. Many of their constituents and party activists blame Congress, more than President Donald Trump, for the health-care stalemate and are pressing them to find a resolution. And before they can do anything, lawmakers face a load of time-sensitive fiscal business: hashing out a budget, funding the government and raising the federal debt limit.

The result is a party sent home for a month-long recess to face mixed messages from voters and an uncertain path forward in the fall.

"Back home, people aren't mad at the president. They're mad at the Republican Party for not working with the president to try and get things done," said Rep. Mike Kelly (R., Pa.), who said he hears complaints while doing errands at Wal-Mart in a district that Mr. Trump handily won.

How Republican lawmakers respond to such frustration -- and whether they move past the health defeat or get swept back into that fight -- will determine whether the GOP-led Congress returns as a unified force. August is the longest recess of the year, and constituents can both energize and draw energy from lawmakers who appear at town halls and other meetings.

Many Republicans are worried that an inability to deliver major legislative accomplishments would result in significant GOP losses in midterm congressional elections. Although Republicans have a favorable map in 2018 that should bolster their chances of holding their Senate majority, GOP strategists see a greater risk of losing control of the House.

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A June Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that people said they would prefer Democrats over Republicans controlling Congress by a 50%-42% margin -- the highest level of support for a Democratic Congress since September 2008.

"More people have sent me emails completely disgusted with the Republican Party," said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots. "Their frustration is with members of Congress."

For now, it seems that Republican voters are more prone to blame Congress than Mr. Trump for Washington's continued gridlock. Mr. Trump's job-approval rating is low: 40% in the June Journal/NBC poll. But Congress's ratings are even lower: 20% in July, according to Gallup polling.

Tensions between Mr. Trump and his party on Capitol Hill have mounted in recent weeks. The president berated congressional Republicans -- as a group -- for failing to repeal the 2010 Affordable Care Act, and some individually for crossing party lines to vote against legislation to replace it.

At the same time, congressional Republicans have grown increasingly willing to defy and speak critically of Mr. Trump. They sent him a bill imposing sanctions on Russia that he opposed. They defended Attorney General Jeff Sessions when Mr. Trump was attacking him.

Republicans are divided over whether the battle over the ACA is over or whether they should try again for health changes while pursuing a complicated tax-code rewrite. The party also is split over whether to reach out to Democrats or to continue pursuing its agenda on a partisan basis.

In Kentucky on Saturday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell showed willingness to support a bipartisan effort being spearheaded by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.). Mr. Alexander's initiative would stabilize health-insurance markets for people who don't get coverage through work or from government programs -- so long at the stabilization is accompanied by some broader health-insurance changes.

The GOP-led Congress can't give its full attention to either health or tax matters until it has dispensed with more pressing issues, including raising the federal debt limit by Sept. 29 and keeping the government funded beyond Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

Those time-sensitive issues will be a heavy lift for Republicans. One issue is whether the needed debt-ceiling increase should include conditions demanded by the party's conservatives. On the spending bill, action could be slowed if Republicans include controversial items such as money for Mr. Trump's plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border in a security-related spending bill. "Tax reform will have to take a back seat," said Greg Valliere, chief global strategist at Horizon Investments, in a recent research note. "Very complicated budget issues will dominate this fall, and the White House is not ready for the GOP infighting that will erupt."

Tea-party activists who have sought a repeal of the ACA for years plan a Sept. 23 rally in Washington to air their grievances that Congress has failed on that and other fronts.

Rep. Mike Coffman (R., Colo.) at a town-hall meeting last week got a lesson on how much health care is still on voters' minds. A majority of questions focused on health care, coming from both those who favored and opposed the ACA. Among them, one woman berated Congress for getting coverage via the ACA while some voters struggle to find affordable coverage.

"How do you address a problem when you don't know what it feels like?" the woman said.

Some lawmakers plan to keep the focus on health care over the recess. But others plan to focus relentlessly on tax policy. House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R., Texas) plans to use Ronald Reagan's ranch as a backdrop for an August event urging an overhaul of the tax code. The White House has also been planning events at which Mr. Trump will make the case for a tax rewrite.

Most Republicans agree on broad contours of a tax overhaul, one that would lower rates for companies and individuals, mostly high-income households. But the party has to overcome strategic differences over how to write a bill. Mr. McConnell has said a tax rewrite would likely be a partisan exercise. The White House has suggested Republicans should reach out to Democrats who represent regions where Mr. Trump won, and develop a bipartisan package.

"I'm a big fan of having a Plan B where you could see a coalition of Democratic and Republican senators come together," said Rep. Tom Reed (R., N.Y.), who isn't coordinating with the White House but said he has reached some of the same conclusions. "Going down the path of a partisan bill, if they chose to do that, good luck."

Mr. Reed is a co-chairman of a group called the Bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus and said he sees room for a tax deal that also would generate infrastructure revenue. He and other group members have been exchanging ideas over the recess about the path forward on avoiding a government shutdown and a crisis over the debt ceiling.

Democrats last week argued against any tax overhaul that lowered rates for the top 1% of households and said they wouldn't back deficit-financed tax cuts.

Write to Siobhan Hughes at siobhan.hughes@wsj.com and Janet Hook at janet.hook@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 06, 2017 19:23 ET (23:23 GMT)