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Republicans Need Another Legislative Success to Avoid Midterm Woes

Realistic expectations a plus in politically polarized environment

Members of Congress exit the Capitol down the House steps after the final vote of the week on Thursday. Lawmakers headed home for the two-week spring recess after passing the omnibus spending bill. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Members of Congress exit the Capitol down the House steps after the final vote of the week on Thursday. Lawmakers headed home for the two-week spring recess after passing the omnibus spending bill. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Last week was all about the Republican Congress finishing a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad assignment that is nonetheless essential to the nation’s sustenance, exemplifies minimal governing competence, and may even be genuinely rewarding for the people elected to set policy.

It will be good for only half a year, and it was born of dozens of compromises for each side to crow and cry about, but the Capitol has produced a solidly bipartisan agreement on the full measure of federal spending.

That’s something, of course, that while once routine has now become a Washington unicorn.

If the Republican majority can conjure up a similar success just one more time in the next seven months, it would almost surely stand as the only exercise of their currently limited muscle that could help ward off a midterm drubbing.

There aren’t going to be any headline-grabbing measures before Election Day on immigration or infrastructure or stabilizing medical insurance markets. But the GOP has just proved to itself that it can swallow its pride and get a budget done after just a few days of manageable drama.

Democrats Have At Least 20 House Takeover Opportunities in These 4 States

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The spirit of productively acquiescent deal-cutting with the Democrats they just fostered, plus the fact that they have already set aside fiscal restraint as their guiding principle at least through the election, means writing a second such omnibus appropriations act by October is a more-than-theoretically attainable achievement.

Legislating in this polarized era, where doing nothing is the default setting, is all about setting realistic expectations and then making sure to live up to them. “First, do no harm” has become a shared commitment of both House and Senate leaders, and new physicians swearing their Hippocratic oath.

By that standard, the GOP leadership, the recalcitrant Freedom Caucus folks and President Donald Trump might all conclude it is in their self-interest to put the next spending battle behind them as quickly and bloodlessly as possible and to do so before the next Congress is chosen — even though that will require heeding at least as many of the Democrats’ demands as they were compelled to do in this round. If they can accomplish that by producing a few different bills, rather than a single take-it-or-leave-it monster, so much the better.

Because, when it comes to political marketing, almost anything that could be portrayed as a deal — and the handiwork of an albeit briefly functioning Republican government — would prove infinitely more salable this fall then continued stalemate, followed by another round of shutdown showdown histrionics, followed by another bout of dispiriting can kicking.

A congressional truce

There is a ready example for all this in recent history.

Back in 1996, a fragile Republican majority took a drubbing in public opinion polls after government shutdowns lasting 27 days, thanks to intractable disputes between the GOP and President Bill Clinton over the size and shape of the government. The final compromise spending package was not finalized until April, but by that point all sides had concluded they didn’t want the voters to watch any more feuding before the election — so they tacitly agreed that the deals they had cut would govern work on the coming year’s budget, too.

The result was that all of an entire year’s worth of appropriations work got finished in just five months, by the October start of the new fiscal year — the last time the budget process worked as constructed, without the need for a single stopgap patch or continuing resolution. Republicans at the time said they believed those few months of fiscal truce were one big reason voters allowed them to retain control on the Hill even as they re-elected Clinton.

There’s a decent parallel now, because the government is effectively as divided as it was then: Trump may be president and his fellow Republicans may be in “control” of Congress, but there is nothing they can do to stop the Democrats from extracting maximum leverage from their filibuster powers over budgetary legislation. In other words, no appropriations bill is going to become law without a significant amount of Democratic support.

White House budget director Mick Mulvaney acknowledged as much in plain terms just before the final votes on the fiscal 2018 omnibus last week. There’s no strategic rationale for the administration changing its tune on the fiscal 2019 deliberations.

“We do not control the Senate,” he said, “so we had to give Democrats something. … We had to give away things we didn’t want to give away.”

The Trump factor

Trump’s “say anything” and ideologically loose approach to leadership, and his penchant for claiming victory at the slightest provocation, can actually be applied as a force for GOP good in the coming instance.

He could even support his Hill helpmates in their uphill re-election cause by repeating his approach of the past week: leaving it almost entirely up to the GOP leadership to cut the best available deal; grudgingly praising the accord; petulantly threatening to veto it after the final votes were cast and lawmakers had skipped town; and then putting his Sharpie to work anyway.

“Had to waste money on Dem giveaways in order to take care of military pay increase and new equipment” was his bluntest summary on Twitter — selling the deal, as did many others in the GOP, as more than anything a record post-Cold War boost in military spending that was worth virtually all the concessions.

In fact, the Republicans’ recipe for success was much simpler than the 2,232 pages of paper it took to produce. And now that it’s been done once, it should be quite easy to replicate: Punt on almost all the nettlesome policy disputes and concentrate instead on spreading around the dollars that have suddenly become available, thanks to their earlier decision to toss out the spending caps that had caused so many problems this decade.

The formula was effective in wooing members of both parties.

Watch: McConnell: Omnibus Not ‘Perfect’ but Contains Victories

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When the spring break deadline pressed in, three-fifths of the Republicans in the House joined a similar share of the Democrats, and a narrow majority of GOP senators joined all but nine Senate Democrats, in concluding they had every interest in spending their way out of trouble and zero interest in reshaping and shrinking the government the way Trump has proposed — not to mention going to the mat for all manner of conservative policy riders from punishing “sanctuary cities” to defunding Planned Parenthood to easing politicization in the pulpits.

There is really no political rationale for the GOP to seek a relitigation of those lost arguments this spring and summer. The result would surely be a florid revival of the era of budgetary impasse that so frustrates the voters. The electorate will blame the majorities, almost for sure, unless somehow the Democrats lose their recent rhetorical discipline and seek to overplay their hand by demanding an even bigger second round of concessions.

The safer course, by far, is for the Republicans to abandon all pretense of another budget battle and spread, in a manner almost identical to what they just finished, the largesse they’ve allotted themselves for the next budget year. If they can get that done by September — with plenty of time for their members to “read the bill” and concede that regular order has been restored — they can close their midterm campaign with boasts of being steady stewards of the power of the purse.

In other words: They can take the money and run.