Is Majority Leader McConnell Tom Brady?

The past couple of days have been interesting for healthcare, in part because they set a different stage for other upcoming legislative efforts. With the defection by Senators Moran and Lee, healthcare repeal and replace is at least stalled, and it faces a very uncertain future. Senator Moran gets cover with moderates, and Senator Lee does the same with the base. Furthermore, Senators Capito, Murkowski, and Collins announced yesterday that they would vote against a procedural motion to take up Majority Leader McConnell’s latest plan to salvage a GOP health bill, repealing Obamacare without a replacement.

A senior congressional staffer said to his boss that it sets up a Hail Mary for Senator McConnell to get something done, but he warned his boss that Super Bowls have been won on those passes. Is Senator McConnell Tom Brady? Some Democratic staffers’ suggest that Majority Leader McConnell’s reputation could be somewhat exaggerated. There’s no doubt that he’s a brilliant tactician, but those skills have primarily been used for blocking and stalling; he’s very good at creating gridlock. However, Majority Leader McConnell can point to no recent victory where he quarterbacked major legislation through the chamber. In fact, some would say his work on the FY2017 omnibus was not a significant GOP victory.

So, what will Congress accomplish before the end of the year?

  • Tax reform is uncertain. Given that the initial plan is for tax reform to move via reconciliation, the House and Senate have to pass a fiscal year 2018 budget, which is an uphill process, and coming to an agreement on tax reform itself is an extraordinarily challenging balancing act between defense hawks and budget hawks within the GOP.
  • The fiscal year end is looming, and though the House appropriations process has started, not a single bill has passed either chamber.
  • The federal government will need to raise the debt ceiling by mid-fall, and yet, there’s no plan to lift the country’s borrowing limit, while there is significant disagreement within the Administration as well as Congress about how to proceed.
  • With Senator McCain being out as he recovers from emergency surgery, it seems unlikely that NDAA comes up, though it had been planned for next week.

What is possible?

Senior staffers have indicated to us that if congressional Republicans really wanted to get something done, they’d bring up a handful of fairly uncontentious things:

  • National Flood Insurance Program authorization, which expires at the end of September, though this is not out of committee in the Senate yet.
  • The FAA authorization, which expires September 30, is out of committee. But the privatization efforts hailed by the president and the House have made it more difficult for passage anytime soon.
  • Coast Guard Authorization should be straightforward, though there’s a Great Lakes discharge issue, so even it includes some controversy.
  • The FDA user fees could be the GOPS’s best opportunity to put some points on the scoreboard.
  • Authorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), community health centers reauthorizations, and Medicare and other health extenders, which expire either at the end of September or between then and the first of next year, are all tied together, so they’re difficult to move right now.
  • Other things expire in December, including Section 702 of FISA – Internet Surveillance.

Some Senate Democratic staffers have indicated that it’s not Senate Democrats who are holding up the nominations. They claim to have no abstract interest in stopping assistant secretaries and general counsels from filling vacant agency positions, and the administration is not moving quickly on announcing formal nominations. There are a number of nominees that have been going through the confirmation process with broad support, such as assistant attorney general for the antitrust division nominee Makan Delrahim, that could be packaged together and put in place almost immediately, especially if there are extra weeks in August. But congressional Republicans may want to create the image that their democratic counterparts are taking this slow-walking position, and are putting forward some of the more controversial nominees. For example, some of the appointees to serve as District Court judges or Steven Bradbury, nominee for General Counsel of Transportation, necessitate Senate Democrats’ request for the maximum amount of time, given their controversial stances on issues like torture. Senate Democrats argue that their Republican counterparts would take the same approach if the tables were turned. FBI Director Christopher Wray is likely to be confirmed before the August recess.