One of the strangest phenomena of this strange week was to watch congressional Republicans gather in Philadelphia to get their act together, only to wind up more lost than ever. I wrote about the first two days of their “retreat”–and a retreat it was!–at New York:
The congressional Republican retreat in Philadelphia this week was supposed to foster highly efficient private discussions and briefings, and let the solons emerge from their labors revealed as a lean, mean, legislating machine. From reports at the end of the first day, however, they looked more like lost sheep, disappointed at the inability of their leaders to provide clear direction on how they would negotiate the tangle of health care, budget, and tax legislation they’ve committed to enact. There is particular anxiety about the very first item on everyone’s agenda: the repeal and replacement of Obamacare.
“Exact, specific and detailed — that’s what people want,” said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.), the chairman of the House Rules Committee. “We’re going to own this stuff, and we better be able to explain it.”
They sure didn’t get that kind of guidance. Here’s an example:
“I don’t think you will see a plan,” said Rep. Patrick J. Tiberi (R-Ohio), chairman of a key subcommittee on health care. “I think you will see components of a plan that are part of different pieces of legislation that will make up what will ultimately be the plan.”
That’s clear as mud, isn’t it?
Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan tried to generate a sense of decisiveness and momentum by talking about the timetable for one reconciliation bill to repeal (and replace?) Obamacare, another to cut taxes, and additional actions required on appropriations. But the content of all this frenetic activity was left maddeningly vague.
The big problem Republicans face, of course (beyond the unpopularity and the fiscal unfeasibility of much of what they want), is that they’ve chosen a partisan strategy to enact their agenda, which means precision timing and, most of all, advance assurances their own president is onboard are critical. Nobody wants to be halfway through an amendment vote-a-rama on a budget-reconciliation bill repealing Obamacare to find out via Twitter that Donald Trump has changed his mind or finally understood some key issue thought to be long resolved. So the Republicans in Philadelphia expected some guidance and feedback from the president, scheduled to address them on the second day.
Instead, Trump gave them a ton of headaches even as they arrived in Philadelphia, with a bunch of executive orders on hot-button issues. It was painfully clear nobody at the gathering had been given a heads-up on what he planned to do while they were away from Washington, and new issues to grapple with were absolutely the last things they needed.
But the senators and congressmen dutifully cheered the new boss during his pithy remarks today, even as many inwardly cringed at his cavalier disregard for their needs, and his insistence on pursuing entirely imaginary priorities like “voter fraud,” a reminder that he is still upset about losing the popular vote last November.
What they did not get from Trump’s speech was even an ounce of guidance. His comments on tax reform amounted to one vague sentence. On Obamacare, he spent most of his time making the strange and incredible claim that he had thought seriously about letting the present system stay in place until it collapsed, but instead decided to “help out” Democrats by putting it to the sword. He did mention his interest in a big fat infrastructure spending binge, which most Republicans, worried about the red ink he seems determined to spill, would love just to go away. All in all, it was a sort of unplugged version of a 2016 Trump campaign speech.
Sure, Trump or his underlings could convey more concrete hopes, wishes, and instructions informally whenever they wanted. But listening to Republicans in Philadelphia and elsewhere, it sure sounds like that’s not happening, at least not yet. And so they rush toward the deadlines they’ve set for themselves, without the slightest assurance any of their complex legislative maneuvers will turn out well.
After I wrote all that, the Washington Post published an account of their discussions on Obamacare, based on a recording of the GOP retreat, and believe it or not, they sound even more confused than I had imagined. They’re not at all in any sort of agreement on timing, substance, procedures, or what kind of health system they think will exist when they are through with their efforts. According to their own budget resolution, they were supposed to start putting together the reconciliation bill that would repeal Obamacare today. They are miles and miles away from that point right now, and may never get there, at this rate.