GOP's Election-Year Dilemma: Push Partisan Bills or Compromise?

(Bloomberg) -- As House and Senate Republicans plot their strategy for 2018, one question will dominate the discussions: how partisan they should be going into an election year.

GOP members from both chambers are meeting this week at a resort in West Virginia to set their priorities ahead of the November election that will determine control of both houses of Congress. The party must choose between striking a softer tone to appeal to moderate voters or adopting a harder line to ensure support from core Republican supporters.

“You would hope you could get some bipartisan cooperation but I recognize how difficult it is in any election year, particularly when control of both chambers is on the line,” said Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who has been in Congress since 2002. “You’re not getting rewarded from your own base for compromise, and that’s a real problem.”

President Donald Trump, who has pressed a partisan agenda since taking office last year, called for both parties to work together during his State of the Union address on Tuesday. Yet the approach he outlined was one that Democrats almost entirely reject.

While the Republican-controlled House and Senate have different dynamics, if lawmakers want legislation to become laws, they’ll have to find a way to cooperate.

The GOP holds a 51-49 majority in the Senate, and given that most legislation needs 60 votes to pass, that means lawmakers from both parties would need to cooperate. In the House, where the GOP holds a decisive majority, leaders are more beholden to lawmakers on the far right who have the power to scuttle legislation or threaten the tenure of Speaker Paul Ryan, should he capitulate to Democrats’ demands.

Setting Goals

That tension between working across the aisle and getting re-elected is the backdrop for this week’s annual Republican retreat.

Republicans widened Congress’s partisan divide last year with tax cuts that passed with only GOP votes and a failed attempt to repeal Obamacare. Democrats responded in kind this year, using the minority party’s leverage in the Senate to shut down the government for three days in an effort to win concessions on immigration.

While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky made it clear that he won’t push strictly partisan priorities, Ryan of Wisconsin has made no such pledge.

Ryan’s first decision will be how to shield immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children from deportation, a Democratic priority. Trump said he is ending the Obama-era program that protected them, known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. While the president said he supports legal status for the immigrants, he wants to close off sponsorship of immigrant parents and siblings by all U.S. citizens, a bedrock of immigration policy that Democrats want to maintain.

Using Leverage

Democrats’ core supporters have demanded that lawmakers force a solution by using their leverage on spending bills needed to keep the government open.

While a bill would have to be bipartisan to pass the Senate, House conservatives are urging Ryan to consider a Republican-only measure in their chamber. Ryan must choose whether to negotiate a deal with the Senate before the House votes on a bill, or pass a GOP bill that would go to a conference committee to reconcile its differences with a bipartisan Senate plan.

So far Ryan gave vague promises to conservatives while insisting that the White House must sign off on whatever he puts on the floor for a vote.

The immigration debate will be a good indicator of whether the parties will cooperate on Trump’s other priorities, according to Representative Sandy Levin, a Michigan Democrat who is retiring in 2018 after 36 years in Congress.

“The major issues will be a test: immigration and infrastructure,” Levin said. “I’m hopeful the speaker and Senator McConnell will really step up to the plate -- even at the risk that they won’t have all the Republicans with them -- because if they insist on having almost all the Republicans with them, they’re going to leave behind this country and the consequences I think will be very serious.”

Political Calculations

That is a risky calculation for House leaders, because deals that get enough votes from Senate Democrats to become law will alienate House conservatives, according to Frances Lee, a University of Maryland government and politics professor who researches Congress. As a cautionary tale for a speaker seeking compromise, she pointed to Ryan’s predecessor, Ohio Republican John Boehner, who was forced out after a rebellion among Republican lawmakers.

“It’s dangerous for party leaders to advance party legislation that’s not supported by most members of their party,” Lee said.

If the House tries to pass a bill solely with GOP votes, “a small bloc of Republicans" can refuse to support it "and then the question is are they going to go and try to get additional votes in the House minority? That’s dangerous to do internally,” she said.

Ryan has been deferential to his far-right members, including the House Freedom Caucus, a group of about three dozen conservatives.

Virginia’s Dave Brat, a Republican who unseated then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014, said Democrats should be given only minor policy concessions because voters elected Republicans to control the House, Senate and White House. Brat and other Republicans say their majorities in both chambers should use this year’s budget process to win more partisan victories, especially to curb spending.

Fast Track

Both parties have used budget reconciliation -- a legislative tool to pass legislation with a simple majority in the Senate -- to ram bills through on a partisan vote. The process is a fast track designed for revenue-neutral budgets, but Democrats used it to overhaul health care and Republicans to rewrite the tax code.

McConnell said in December he won’t push any GOP-only bills that would require near-unanimous support from Republican senators. Ryan said recently that ambitious overhauls of Social Security and Medicare will have to wait for bipartisan consensus, but he promised to push forward with measures to encourage beneficiaries of federal programs to seek employment.

John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat first elected in 2007, said there is “no way” lawmakers would pursue policies this year that would be perceived as cutting benefits. “In an election year, nobody’s going to want to mess with these programs,” he said.

Cole, who has been involved with Oklahoma politics since 1979, said there was more political cooperation during about four decades when Democrats controlled the House and Republicans were used to being in the minority. That changed with the Republican takeover in 1994 as then-Speaker Newt Gingrich sought to energize GOP voters by emphasizing partisan measures, he said.

“It’s gotten worse and it got worse in the Obama years and I think has accelerated to some degree this past year with Trump,” Cole said.

Representative Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said increasingly bitter partisan bickering has taken much of the joy out of public service.

“It has become more challenging to be productive and do things for the country,” Thornberry told reporters Thursday in West Virginia.

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