Republicans in Congress look to keep a low profile

WASHINGTON—After last year’s successful drive to cut taxes, what does the majority party in Congress do for an encore? The answer for Republicans seems to be, “Not so much.”

For sure, Republicans in Washington feel good about the effect their overhaul of the nation’s tax code is having on the economy, and recent polling suggests it’s getting more popular as the midterm elections draw closer. But looking ahead to other potential legislation to boast about in hopes of boosting GOP chances of retaining control of the House and Senate, the agenda is pretty thin.

President Donald J. Trump’s trillion-dollar-plus plan to boost infrastructure has landed with a thud. Hopes in the House of taking on welfare reform seem likely to fizzle in the Senate. And issues like immigration and now even gun control invite internal GOP divisions at the height of primary season. Repealing and replacing former President Barack Obama’s health-care law is off the table.

Instead, the GOP-controlled Congress is looking ahead to a year of abbreviated workweeks and low-profile and small-bore initiatives. The House is spending more and more time on the obscure and the arcane; the Senate chamber is being turned over for weeks at a time to routine nominations.

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Instead of repealing “Obamacare,” lawmakers are promising bipartisan legislation to free smaller banks from stricter regulations passed in 2010, fund the fight against opioids, and implement the party’s promise for a huge military buildup.

To many Republicans, that’s plenty.

“We’re going to have the largest defense buildup since Ronald Reagan. Most Republicans, they’d consider that a pretty big accomplishment. We’re going to clearly do more on opioids than we’ve ever done,” said veteran Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. “They may be secondary issues to most people, but if you can pick off three or four big things like that I think you’ve got something to run on.”

Opioid funding and the Pentagon increases are on track to pass this month as part of a $1.3-trillion catchall spending bill, a follow-on measure to a long-sought bipartisan budget outline that passed in February. That omnibus bill is one of the few legislative trains that’s guaranteed to leave the station this year.

But for now, the Capitol Hill agenda is remarkably light.

The Senate spent last week on a series of confirmation votes, continuing a pattern since Trump took office of devoting one out of every three weeks, on average, solely to voting on Trump nominees.

And at other times, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., steers clear of controversial legislation and avoids Democratic filibusters. Every bill that passed the Senate last year, either advanced under filibuster-proof rules or with the support of Democrats. In other words, there wasn’t a single filibuster last year, simply because McConnell kept the floor free of anything that Democrats could block.

The result was that the Senate floor became, for weeks at a stretch, a legislative dead zone.

For its part, the House had a two-day workweek on noncontroversial legislation last week after GOP leaders canceled votes for Wednesday and Thursday, citing the decision to have Rev. Billy Graham lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda.

Turning Points 2018
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