Republicans relinquish Congress with whimper: ‘More missed opportunities than anything’
Republicans closed out two years of control over the political branches of Washington on Thursday with a whimper, leaving a government still in partial shutdown and a long list of priorities left undone.
Asked about their record, GOP lawmakers said they were proud of the tax overhaul in December 2017, which also included long-sought permission to drill for oil in an Alaskan preserve and a repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate to purchase health insurance.
But they struggled to recall other marquee moves, pointing instead to promises unkept to repeal outright the 2010 Affordable Care Act, abortion politics and a host of immigration battles.
“The failure of this Republican Congress to repeal Obamacare, secure our borders and address our deficit and debt may be a pivot point in the failure of America going forward,” said Rep. Mo Brooks, Alabama Republican.
It was a major letdown for lawmakers who had been promised they would get “tired of winning.”
Even when GOP leaders won big bipartisan votes, such as pumping money into anti-opioid addiction efforts or a generational reform of sentencing policies that could cut the federal prison population by tens of thousands, they didn’t seem to earn credit, with turmoil at the White House and ego-testing skirmishes on Capitol Hill overshadowing their work.
As they closed out the session, top Republicans insisted progress had been made.
Their lists included new laws to combat sex trafficking, imposing sanctions on bad foreign actors, repealing Obama-era regulations, and providing terminally ill patients with the right to try experimental treatments.
Senators also pointed to dozens of appeals-court judges and two Supreme Court justices approved, over vehement objections of Democrats.
But rank-and-file lawmakers easily ticked off their disappointments as the session was nearing an end last month.
“More missed opportunities than anything,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican who said failing to stop taxpayer money going to Planned Parenthood was a major whiff.
Rep. Morgan Griffith, Virginia Republican, said the 2017 tax reform was a big get, but botching the immigration debate and failing on a full Obamacare repeal were fumbles.
Rep. Neal P. Dunn also pointed to the Obamacare failure, which saw the House vote for repeal only to see that fail in the Senate.
“No question about it,” the Florida Republican said. “I’m a doctor by trade, and it was one of the things I was counting on doing here.”
Mr. Trump, for his part, was much more rosy, ticking off the tax cuts, approval of drilling for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and repealing Obamacare’s individual mandate all of which came in the tax-cut bill in 2017 as big wins.
He also said he’s made strides on his own, canceling the Iran nuclear arms control agreement and, he said, pressuring oil-producing countries to keep prices low.
“They say I’m the most popular president in the history of the Republican Party. You see the same polls as I do,” the president told reporters.
Fact-checkers challenged that assertion, but Congress is under no illusions of its popularity.
Its approval ratings, which stood at 28 percent in Gallup polling just after Mr. Trump’s inauguration, fell to just 18 percent as of last month.
And that was before the new shutdown, for which voters place most of the blame on Mr. Trump or congressional Republicans, according to a slew of polls.
Mr. Brooks said the chief reason Republicans fell short over the last two years was because they repeatedly ran into Democratic filibusters in the Senate. He said GOP leaders in the upper chamber committed malpractice by refusing to use the “nuclear option” to alter Senate rules and defang the filibuster.
“I wish that Mitch McConnell and the United States Senate had understood the importance to America of utilizing our majorities instead of ceding control of the Senate to the Democrats, which is what they did when they kept the 60-vote rule on all policy votes,” he said.
Republicans said the successes they did have the tax overhaul, repealing Obama regulations and confirming judges came on issues where only a majority vote was needed.
“This Congress will be looked back on with a lot of success. But we still have [the] filibuster,” said Rep. Chris Collins, New York Republican.
G. William Hoagland, senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), identified another hurdle: While Republicans may have nominally held the White House and both chambers in Congress, internal party differences kept them from exercising real control.
“Despite ‘Republicans control,’ there still was a lot of division just under the surface in the Republican Party, and some confusion brought about by the White House itself,” he said.
Mr. Hoagland, a longtime Senate budget staffer before moving to the BPC, said there were some wins that flew beneath the radar, such as the Chronic Care Act, part of last year’s budget deal, which expands access for a number of services for long-term conditions.
Mr. Hoagland said the big failure was on deficits, where Republicans oversaw a spike in spending.
“One would have thought that Republicans who have preached and spouted fiscal responsibility for many years you would have thought they would have been more successful,” he said.
⦁ S.A. Miller and Dave Boyer contributed to this article.