By Scott Wong - 04-12-17 06:00 AM EDT
Three months into the new Congress, some Republicans are fearful that their failure to repeal ObamaCare could spell doom for the rest of President Trump's legislative agenda.
Some Capitol Hill Republicans have envisioned the nightmare scenario for 2017, and it goes like this: No ObamaCare repeal. No tax reform. No trillion-dollar infrastructure package. No border wall.
It's a striking change from the period after Election Day, when GOP leaders vowed that the new unified Republican government would "go big, go bold" and deliver for the American people.
While many Republicans hold out hope the ObamaCare repeal bill will be revived, skeptics say the GOP infighting during last month's healthcare collapse may have poisoned the well for future big-ticket legislative deals.
"I don't see how you put a coalition together to deal with tax reform," said one House Republican who is close to Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and his leadership team. "Unless we can bridge this divide and get a win on the board, I don't know how we pull the other things together, all the other big things we gotta do."
Despite some signs of life, healthcare talks between the White House and centrist and conservative holdouts did not result in a deal before Congress began a two-week April recess.
And the recriminations among Republicans only seem to be getting nastier.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the head of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, "is a pathological liar who isn't interested in getting to yes," one House GOP colleague of Meadows told The Hill in a fit of frustration over the stalled health negotiations.
But Rep. Ra l Labrador (R-Idaho), a fellow Freedom Caucus leader, defended Meadows as "a man of great integrity." "When members of Congress resort to personal attacks while hiding behind anonymity," Labrador said, "it's usually because their position is weak in the first place and they are getting heat back home for not keeping the promises that they made to their constituents."
At a town hall in Cedar Springs, Mich., GOP Rep. Justin Amash, another Meadows ally, hurled blame at the feet of Ryan: Republicans need "either a change in direction from this Speaker, or we need a new Speaker."
"I don't know that the Lord himself could unite our caucus," veteran Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) told The Associated Press.
Late last month, when Ryan realized he was short of the votes and yanked the health insurance bill off the floor, he and Trump insisted they were moving on to tax reform.
But within days, they had returned to the healthcare legislation.
In part, it's because passing the ObamaCare repeal-and replace-bill smooths the path for tax reform, something Ryan and many other congressional leaders have emphasized to members. Mick Mulvaney, Trump's budget director and a top health negotiator, has been explicit about the need to pass a health bill, telling RealClearPolitics it's the "linchpin" of Trump's entire legislative agenda.
The bill, known as the American Health Care Act, would cut about $1 trillion in ObamaCare taxes over a decade, significantly lowering the revenue budget baseline. That improved baseline would give Republicans greater flexibility to lower corporate tax rates in comprehensive tax reform.
Some Republicans, including Rep. Tom Reed (N.Y.), have also echoed Trump's call for tax reform and infrastructure to be tied together.
"These items are all connected, and the connectivity is funding," Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.), a critic of the GOP healthcare bill, told The Hill.
Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist highlighted the challenges facing GOP leaders since the delay of the healthcare bill.
"You try to run a marathon, but if you don't do healthcare first, you're a trillion dollars back from the start of the marathon," Norquist said during a recent visit to The Hill's offices. Without healthcare, "it's an extra 10 to 20 miles to get the trillion dollars, and then you're off to the races.
"Taking a trillion dollars of tax increases off the table gets you closer to what you wanted tax reform to look like."
Ryan has argued that tax reform will be an easier lift than healthcare because Republicans are more unified around the idea of fixing the outdated U.S. tax code.
But even some of Ryan's closest allies in Congress dispute his assessment.
"I have a lot of respect for the Speaker, but I don't see it that way," longtime Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior appropriator, said in a phone interview.
"There is a lot of resistance" to Ryan's proposal known as the border-adjustment plan, which would impose a 20 percent tax on imports.
The idea, as of now, is for Republicans to tackle tax reform using the budget reconciliation process, which would allow them to avoid mustering 60 votes to break a filibuster.
But Cole argued that that process imposes constraints - specifically, a bill passed under reconciliation cannot hike the budget deficit after 10 years - and could lead to the same intraparty warfare that thwarted the ObamaCare repeal bill.
"Since we weren't able to do healthcare reform by reconciliation, why would we be able to do tax reform by reconciliation? It's really difficult," said Cole, who added that Republicans should focus on more basic government functions.
"We can still get some things done," he said, "but we need to get the government funded, think about how to deal with the debt ceiling and begin negotiations" on fiscal 2018 appropriation bills.
It's no secret how much Ryan despises stopgap or catch-all omnibus spending bills, but the former Budget Committee chairman will have to shepherd one through the House anyway at the end of the month.
Lawmakers need to pass a spending bill by April 28 to avert a government shutdown. They'll have just three full legislative days to act, given that the House isn't scheduled to return from its recess until April 25.
Trump is getting impatient with all the congressional inaction, especially as his administration nears the 100-day mark. He won a major victory with the Senate's confirmation of his Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch. But now he wants Congress to pass funding for his wall along the southern border, one of his central campaign promises.
GOP leaders and their allies say the government funding bill is the wrong place to have a fight over the wall.
"What's the justification for shutting down the government that you run?" asked Cole, the chairman of an appropriations subcommittee. "It'd be a Republican House and Senate shutting down a Republican administration. That doesn't make any sense to me."
Healthcare talks have continued into the two-week recess. Vice President Pence has been calling up House negotiators and conservative outside groups as he searches for a deal, GOP sources said.
"I still feel confident that we still will be able to move forward with our plan. The American people deserve it and they want it, and we're certainly committed to it," Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) told The Hill.
"Where there is a will, there is a way, and certainly there is a lot of will here to get this done."
But without a healthcare victory to tout back home in western Missouri, Hartzler said she planned to spend the recess taking her anti-opioid campaign to local high schools.