Buckle up. The next 100 days in Washington will be tumultuous.
Donald Trump and leading Republicans plan to overwhelm the 115th Congress, which convenes Tuesday, with a mind-numbing array of changes. By the end of April, they hope to have confirmed a new Supreme Court justice, cleared a huge infrastructure measure, and be well on the way to enacting big and permanent tax cuts along with sharp cutbacks in spending on domestic programs affecting the poor. They may throw in some education reform and immigration crackdowns.
On his first day in office, Trump is expected to issue sweeping executive orders that undo many of the actions taken by President Barack Obama on issues such as the environment and immigration.
That’s just the formal agenda. Trump, who already has weighed in more than any other president-elect in recent memory — with tweets praising Vladimir Putin or changing nuclear policy — predictably will create new controversies on his own.
Congress is preparing for this enormous workload. Abandoning the leisurely schedule of recent years, lawmakers are slating four or five day workweeks for the next three months, except for a week off in February.
Despite the Republicans’ total control there are possible fissures that could create complications. Trump’s priority is to quickly enact the biggest infrastructure measure since the Interstate Highway System. That could get support from Democrats if it doesn’t include anti-union provisions and isn’t funded by cutting other programs. Trump wouldn’t care if it blows a big hole in the deficit, though that would be a problem for many conservative Republicans.
Congressional Republicans say Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence claim they’ll essentially delegate the substantive agenda to House Speaker Paul Ryan and other leaders on Capitol Hill, though the president-elect already has had several screaming phone calls with top Republican members of Congress.
Speaker Ryan’s top priorities are permanent tax cuts, skewed to the wealthy and investment, accompanied by cutbacks to domestic programs. If that proves unpopular, will Trump, who doesn’t like to be associated with unpopular things, pull the rug out?
Republicans remain tied in knots over Obamacare. They are going to repeal it quickly with gaping questions and loopholes when it comes to how and when it will be replaced. But the real possibility this could create chaos and cause the health insurance market to crater scares them.
Of course, the initial battles in the next few weeks will be over confirming Trump’s appointments. Most will make it through, unless they stumble badly in hearings or a new controversy or scandal is uncovered.
But Democrats and a few Republicans will put many of them through a grilling. The secretary of state-designate, Rex Tillerson, the chief executive officer of Exxon-Mobil, will face scrutiny and opposition from most Democrats because of his closeness to the autocratic Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Tillerson is very likely to be confirmed. If the national security activist John Bolton is nominated as deputy secretary of state, he might be rejected, which is why Trump probably will bow to the campaign against him.
Many of the domestic cabinet appointments, almost uniformly staunch conservatives, will be questioned not only about their views but, in some cases, about their qualifications. One or two could go under.
But these will only be a warm-up for the likely battle in the next few months over Trump’s pick to fill the Supreme Court vacancy. Democrats are bitter that Republicans refused for more than nine months to even consider Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland. Although Trump released the names of possible appointees during the campaign, no one believes he has given any thought to this issue or knows much about it.
Given this void, it’s anyone’s guess whether he’d select a hard-right jurist, which would please the party’s base. But unless Republican leaders change the rules, it will take 60 votes, or at least eight Democrats, to win Senate confirmation. A more moderate conservative nominee, though perhaps easily confirmable, would alienate activists.
The big economic issues will dominate the legislative calendar as Republicans calculate they have to enact sweeping changes by July 4. Trump will enter the White House less popular than any recent predecessor; if history is any guide, a president’s clout, ability to apply political pressure and galvanize public support, usually diminishes over time.
If they achieve their goals, and work together, consumer and business confidence could be soaring, the economy humming, adding jobs, and Republicans won’t have much to worry about.
That entails threading delicate political needles and enjoying a lot of luck. The zeal to make the supply-side tax cuts permanent means that, under the budget resolutions, they can’t add to the deficit in the second decade. Even with the gimmicks Ryan and others will employ that’s not anywhere close to achievable. To do so, they might then accompany these tax cuts with sharp cutbacks in federal spending on programs such as Medicaid and food stamps. That juxtaposition makes a few Republicans uncomfortable.
But nothing worries this new majority more than health care. Attacking Obamacare for the past seven years has been low-hanging fruit. But devising their own health plan, which they’ve never done, without millions of people losing coverage and hospitals and insurance companies getting clobbered, is beyond daunting.
They would do well to remember the admonition years ago of the late Bob Teeter, one of America’s great pollsters, who foresaw that education is a winning issue politically but health care is a loser for whoever owns it. Soon that will be Republicans.