Their sweep complete, Republicans prep to topple Obamacare, tackle tax code, boost border security

November 9, 2016

By Katie Leslie The Dallas Morning News

Nov. 09–WASHINGTON — Few Republicans imagined this year that they could hold control of Congress, win the presidency and have a wholly GOP government for the first time in a decade.

But on Wednesday, what wasn’t even a dream started to take shape as a legislative agenda.

Republican leaders expressed optimism that Congress and President-elect Donald Trump would move quickly to repeal Obamacare, beef up border security, overhaul the tax code, confirm a Supreme Court justice and roll back federal regulations that have mushroomed under President Barack Obama.

Obamacare is “a pretty high item on our agenda. … I’d be shocked if we didn’t move forward to keep our commitment to the American people,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday.

“Every single Republican thought Obamacare was a mistake, without exception,” he told reporters. “That’s still our view, and you can expect us, with a new president who has the same view, to address that issue.”

Dallas Reps. Pete Sessions and Jeb Hensarling, chairmen of the House Rules and Financial Services committees, also said they expected health care to be among the first issues Congress tackles when Trump takes the White House.

But it’s unlikely that with just a narrow majority in the Senate, Republicans will be able to repeal and replace Obamacare, leaving lawmakers on both sides to continue modifying health care laws through a series of legislative maneuvers.

“All of that will be explored,” said Hensarling, who with Sessions endorsed Trump for the White House back in May after Sen. Ted Cruz left the race. “I will admit we’ve come off a presidential race that was a little light on issues and pretty heavy on personalities, but to the extent there were issues, Obamacare was a big one.”

House Republicans, led by Speaker Paul Ryan, have unveiled a plan earlier this year to replace Obamacare, whereas Sessions

is behind his own plan to modify the Affordable Care Act. On Wednesday, he expressed optimism that, with Trump in the White House, the legislation he introduced with Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., would get another look.

McConnell predicted Trump will move quickly to nominate a ninth justice to the Supreme Court, and defended his decision to deny confirmation hearings for Judge Merrick Garland, an Obama-nominee. Though it was within the Obama’s authority to nominate a court justice, Republicans insisted that, due to the election, the decision should be left to the next president.

“I thought I was on pretty firm footing to do that,” McConnell said. “The American people have spoken and President Trump will send us a nominee, I assume, early next year.”

Sessions and others said they also expect a united Congress to quickly take up border security, but they stopped short of committing to Trump’s campaign promise to build a 1,000-mile wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We’re going to find a lot of common ground on securing our border. The ‘build the wall’ is simply, all it is is an analogy to — let’s control our borders,” Sessions said.

McConnell similarly sidestepped questions about whether he supports a physical wall, saying: “I want to try to achieve border security in whatever way is most effective.”

The Senate majority leader predicted that Trump will follow through on abandoning Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a set of environmental regulations intended to reduce carbon pollution. “Day One would be a good idea,” he said.

But he declined to discuss what a Trump presidency would mean for immigration, particularly Obama’s executive orders that have been hotly contested in states such as Texas, noting: “We’ll be discussing that internally with new administration in coming months.”

Hensarling predicts former congressman and Vice President-elect Mike Pence will play a key role in rebuilding a relationship strained between Congress and the executive branch during the past eight years — a boon to passing the party’s legislative agenda.

Pence and Hensarling are close friends and political allies, and travel buddies in recent weeks as the Texan campaigned with the Indiana governor.

“Mike is going to find himself in an incredibly important role. He’s a House guy, he knows about our plans and likes our plans and will be President-elect Trump’s emissary and agent of the House,” he said.

What’s unclear is how Republicans will navigate trade issues with Trump, who, like Clinton, has said he’s opposed to the 12 country trade deal known as the Trans Pacific Partnership. That free trade deal, which hasn’t been ratified by Congress, was negotiated by Obama and has received Republican support.

On Wednesday, McConnell said the Senate will not bring the deal up for a vote during the lame duck and that it will be up to Trump to decide what happens next.

It’s also unknown whether GOP leaders will act on any major infrastructure spending proposals that Trump could bring as they rebuffed similar measures during Obama’s term.

Though he’s given few specifics, Trump has pledged to spend billions in fixing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure — a plan similar to defeated challenger Hillary Clinton’s — and suggested he’d pay for it by canceling “billions and billions of dollars in payment” to the United Nations.

John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution, said spending on infrastructure is an area that could receive bipartisan support.

Still, he predicts some conservative members will oppose the spending to avoid adding to the debt.

“Infrastructure bills are costly and there are some true budget hawks in Congress who would be pretty opposed to it,” Hudak said. “You’ll have Democratic support, but I don’t think the Freedom Caucus will be thrilled with a couple hundred billions dollars in infrastructure spending.”

Hensarling demurred when asked if he thought the idea could gain traction in the Republican-led chambers.

A more pressing priority, he said, would be to address what Republicans believe are burdensome regulations by passing the REINS Act, a key tenet of Ryan’s “Better Way” policy blueprint that would require Congress to approve major regulation, and having greater oversight of agency spending.

Hensarling, who has unveiled a plan to dismantle the 2010 Wall Street regulation known as Dodd-Frank, also echoed McConnell and Trump’s calls for a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code.

“We now have a chance to do something that is big, something that is bold,” Hensarling said.

But despite decisive wins across the board on Tuesday, McConnell called for a thoughtful path forward for Republicans, cautioned against taking its majority status for granted, and urged bipartisan cooperation.

“It’s always a mistake to misread your mandate. Frequently new majorities think it’s going to be forever. Nothing is forever in this country,” he said, adding: “We’ve been given a temporary lease on power, if you will, and we need to use it responsibly.”

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