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Republicans (Finally) Pull a Rabbit

January 10, 2018

Republicans entered 2017 with a plan. Conservatives were jubilant as inauguration plans were underway and the majorities in both houses were sworn in. The stars had aligned for the party and the entire Republican wish list seemed to be on the agenda and readily within reach.

But if the election of 2016 taught us anything, it’s that in the Age of Trump, expect the unexpected.

This was supposed to be the year that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) would be history. Repeal and replace had been a cornerstone of the Republican platform since the moment President Obama’s pen left the ACA page. Instead, for most of the year, all the Republicans got was frustration and defeat. A few wavering senators and a razor-thin majority in the Senate meant that multiple attempts at repeal met with no success.

However, as in life, when one door closes another one opens. After 11 months of being branded a legislative loser, President Trump scored his first major victory on Capitol Hill with the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The failure of campaign promises to repeal and replace should have been a disaster for Republicans. It exposed deep fault lines in the Republican caucus, and had observers questioning the leadership’s and the president’s clout in Congress.

Instead, this failure opened up new legislative avenues and buoyed Republican leaders to press for a win on taxes. Internal resistance to tax reform softened as Republicans grew tired of the prevailing narrative. Many times during the drama of the spring and summer, I speculated that tax reform was the way to go for Republicans. They needed something to point to in the 2018 midterms and after years of opposing a Democratic president, they needed to show they could govern and deliver something for the American people.

Most of all, the GOP and the president got their much-needed victory.  There was speculation that the issues with Medicare would delay the president’s authorization of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, but those assumptions subsided as he signed the bill to close 2017. With the final stroke of that pen, President Trump rewrote the narrative on his first year in office.

Without this bill, opponents would have called 2017 an abject failure and even his base would have found little to be excited about. While conservatives applaud executive actions, such as approving the Keystone Pipeline and opening up public land in Utah for commercial use, these are not the sweeping changes Trump’s voters envisioned. Now the president and his party have a defining piece of legislation to hang their hats on.

Democratic opposition was predictably fierce. Digging their heels in on fighting Republicans’ efforts to repeal and replace the ACA paid off, but in the end the majority party carried the day. Now Democrats will try to whip up their base and generate opposition around the implementation of the tax cuts, just as Republicans whipped up a frenzy around the ACA.

But, for now, the day belongs to the GOP. Despite this, a great deal of important work remains undone, especially in health care.

The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) remains without reauthorization. Although procedures for transferring unused funds between states can keep it afloat, urgent action for a full five-year authorization should be enacted in January. Likewise, Congress should “plus-up” the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control, instead of cutting these vital agencies. And, I encourage my colleagues to finalize the spending bills for the current fiscal year and dig in and work hard in the months ahead to get all 12 individual appropriations measures for FY 2019 passed before September 30. That would show leadership and good governance.

Even though all this work remains, Republicans have new reason for optimism. They managed to salvage a rough year at the eleventh-hour and provide a needed Christmas gift for Americans. Now they must enter 2018 with a plan and, unlike this past year, they must execute that plan.

I am hopeful Republicans will do this and continue to provide good policy and governance for the American people.

As someone who worked across the aisle while in Congress, I also remain hopeful that my colleagues can find areas of agreement and partnership, despite 2018 being an election year.

If the last year has taught me anything, it’s that this process will rarely be smooth sailing. As we enter 2018 and the second year of the Trump Administration, my advice to all Americans is to remain optimistic — but keep your seatbelt buckled.