“And for our friends in the Senate, oh boy — the Senate, remember this — look, the Senate, we have to get rid of what’s called the filibuster rule; we have to. And if we don’t, the Republicans will never get anything passed. You’re wasting your time.”
That was President Donald Trump speaking at a rally in Phoenix, Ariz. on Aug. 22, outlining the progress — or lack thereof — of the Republican agenda in Congress under the leadership of House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
2017 is more than halfway over, but so far, the major issues Republicans and Trump ran on in 2016 — building the southern border wall, cutting taxes, rebuilding the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and repealing and replacing Obamacare — have gone nowhere in Congress, despite Republicans controlling majorities in both the House and Senate.
To Republican voters this is not merely disappointing, it is demoralizing, and could have a huge impact on key Congressional races in 2018 if the base comes to believe that their votes are pointless.
For Trump, he believes that one of the reasons budget reconciliation — which does only take 51 votes in the Senate — is a substandard approach to passing legislation is because of the constraints it places on what can be brought to the floor. He has a point.
“[S]ome of the best things in healthcare require 60 votes,” Trump said, adding, “So even when you say we’re voting on healthcare, like across state lines, purchase across state lines. One of the most important things, I’ve been talking about it for two years during debates. It gives competition. Insurance companies come in, your prices go way down.”
This is one of the signature promises Republicans have been making on health care going all the way back to 2008, by standard bearers John McCain, Mitt Romney and later Trump, but under current Senate rules, it has no chance of passing. It can only come via the traditional legislative process.
As Trump noted, “Right now, we need 60 votes and we have 52 Republicans. That means that eight Democrats are controlling all of this legislation.”
And it’s not just on purchasing insurance across state lines. Significant changes to the tax code via substantive reform are hampered by the Byrd Rule in the Senate, which requires any legislation on budget reconciliation be deficit-neutral.
That hampers bills like infrastructure, which are basically spending bills, and do not tend to be deficit neutral.
The border wall also fits into this category. Even though it is thought it would be attached to the Sept. 30 continuing resolution, that still requires 60 votes on cloture.
And because Senate Republicans refuse to eliminate the filibuster, they are left with whatever can be done on budget reconciliation — and whatever Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer will allow into the continuing resolution.
Under these circumstances, Trump is making the case that without eliminating the filibuster — and by inference, Trump is also strongly signaling a need to change Republican leadership in Congress — the GOP Congress is unlikely to get its agenda implemented. Since 1917, when Rule XXII was adopted by the Senate, Republicans have never had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and if history holds, they never will. So, Trump is 100 percent correct.
That is, unless Ryan and McConnell can prove him wrong. They have to find a way to implement the legislative agenda they ran on. That’s their problem. They’re the ones saying they can get these things done without getting rid of the filibuster. It’s up to them to prove it.
Which, here’s an idea. Take the debt ceiling, and put it on budget reconciliation, requiring dollar for dollar spending cuts for every dollar the debt limit is increased, say, by $3 trillion. That would include the Obamacare partial repeal and replace, and additional spending cuts. Attach the tax cuts to the bill at $2 trillion. Put $985 billion on infrastructure and another $15 billion for the wall. Then it’s deficit neutral. And if the parliamentarian whines, override her with a simple majority vote in the Senate.
The fact is, there are ways for Ryan and McConnell to deliver — perhaps not everything but a substantial portion of what has been promised. The real block is not necessarily capacity, there are enough Republicans to make a majority, but the willingness of Republican legislators to do something bold on behalf of their constituents to keep their promises. The choice is theirs, mindful that it will not be President Trump who will be punished at the polls in 2018, it will be the GOP Congress.