(Bloomberg) -- Republicans want to channel momentum from the GOP’s victory on taxes into a push to overhaul the nation’s welfare programs, though some of President Donald Trump’s advisers prefer a less controversial infrastructure plan at the top of his agenda.
House Speaker Paul Ryan regards 2018 as a chance to fulfill the ambitions he brought to Congress 20 years ago: reshaping the social safety net for the poor and disabled, as well as programs including food stamps and Medicaid. He said Wednesday he’s focused on getting people from welfare to work.
“People want able bodied people who are on welfare to go to work, they want us to get people out of poverty, into the workforce,” Ryan said in a Fox News interview late Wednesday. “That’s good for them, that’s good for the economy, that’s good for the federal budget.”
A welfare revamp is one of two top potential legislative initiatives for Trump -- along with the major infrastructure program he promoted in his presidential campaign -- according to senior administration officials and outside advisers. The administration has yet to reach a decision on which objective to put first, or even whether to choose between them.
Read more: Why welfare-to-work is Washington deja vu: QuickTake Q&A
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday that he sees infrastructure as a key objective for 2018, not a major overhaul of welfare programs.
“Democrats aren’t going to be interested in entitlement reform, so I don’t see that on the agenda,” McConnell said at an event Thursday hosted by Axios.
The White House must set a course as it navigates sensitive political issues coming to a head early in the year, including the status of hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the nation illegally as children, raising the government’s borrowing limit and reaching agreement on spending. Additionally, the hurdles for major legislation will increase after an Alabama Senate seat currently in Republican hands is occupied by Democrat Doug Jones in January.
The two Trump objectives suggest very different political paths to start the mid-term election year.
Going after welfare programs, on the heels of a tax bill most Americans consider a giveaway to the wealthy, is sure to incense Democrats even while resonating across the Republican coalition. A focus on rebuilding roads, bridges, airports and other infrastructure, on the other hand, offers the opportunity for an unpopular president to be seen working with Democrats and swing constituencies such as union households, though many Republican fiscal conservatives may balk at the price tag.
The White House has laid groundwork for cutting welfare programs. The president’s 2018 budget proposal sought steep reductions in food stamps, Medicaid health insurance payments, Social Security disability benefits, low-income housing assistance and block grants that fund meals-on-wheels for the elderly.
House Republicans released a policy blueprint last year for reshaping poverty programs with more work requirements, stronger protections against abuse and more leeway for states to alter rules. The document targeted Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food stamps and Social Security’s Supplemental Security Income program for disabled and elderly people with very low incomes.
White House officials have offered varying -- and ambitious -- signals on where the president will focus his attention after returning from his holiday break.
On Tuesday, press secretary Sarah Sanders said another attempt to revamp the nation’s health care system would be "a big part of our focus next year." That came a day after the president himself cited a train derailment in Washington state as evidence of the need to "start immediately fixing the infrastructure of the United States." And a day earlier, legislative affairs director Marc Short discussed House Speaker Ryan’s desire to alter the nation’s entitlement programs during an appearance on "Meet the Press."
Next year’s politics will be even trickier for Republicans after the Senate seats Alabama’s Doug Jones, a Democrat, narrowing their margin to a majority of only one vote. The House can pass all the conservative legislation they want, but it has to make it through the much trickier Senate math to actually become law.
Republicans are already eyeing the budget for fiscal year 2019 to use its fast-track reconciliation process to ram priority legislation through the Senate without needing votes from Democrats to overcome a filibuster. But as the GOP discovered when the Senate failed to pass the House bill to repeal the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, getting even a simple majority within their own party -- especially to cut popular social programs -- is no easy task.
Trump aims to release a detailed document of principles, rather than a drafted bill, for upgrading roads, bridges, airports and other public works before the Jan. 30 State of the Union address, according to an administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the details aren’t public. The plan is expected to roughly mirror a package outlined in the president’s budget, which would have the federal government spend around $200 billion on infrastructure projects over the next decade.
Administration officials say those funds would be largely dedicated for public-private and state-federal joint projects, with the hope the federal portion could spur some $1 trillion in overall investment. As part of the project, the administration would seek new ways to streamline the often lengthy federal permitting review process, which Trump has repeatedly criticized as a constraint on economic growth.
Democratic Senator Mark Warner said Thursday that he doubts the GOP will have a “meaningful” infrastructure plan because Trump would allow cuts to the Highway Trust Fund. Congressional Republicans are losing the opportunity for Democratic support by not including financing for infrastructure in the tax bill, he said.
“What you need for infrastructure is new money, and I don’t see where they’re going to get it,” Warner said at a breakfast sponsored by Axios. As far as entitlement reform, Warner said it will be “virtually impossible” for Republicans to get Democratic votes.
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