March is shaping up to be the most important month for the Republican Party in more than a decade.
For the first time since 2006, the GOP controls the White House and Congress.
That power gives Republicans who thwarted much of President Obama’s second term the opportunity to fundamentally change federal policy and win legislative victories desired since the height of the Tea Party movement — if they can unify behind a common agenda.
The wish list begins with passing a budget, reforming the tax code and repealing and replacing ObamaCare.
All three issues are divisive, making the next six weeks key.
The House will be in session for five of them, while the Senate is scheduled only to take a short two-day break in March.
By the end of that intense run, it will be clear that the Trump agenda is moving along swiftly — or stuck in its tracks.
“The month of March is not a ‘do-or-die’ moment, but it is the next closest thing,” says GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “For the last eight years, Republicans operated as the chest-thumping opposition party, and now is their best chance to show the American people they can in fact govern on some very critical issues.”
The big month effectively kicks off on Tuesday, when President Trump speaks to a joint session of Congress for the first time.
The president will subsequently deliver a budget blueprint and an ObamaCare replacement plan to the Congress.
Replacing ObamaCare is riddled with tough questions on Medicaid, the individual mandate and taxes. On the budget, conservatives want to attack the debt, but Trump has vowed not to make major changes to Medicare and Social Security.
During his speech, lawmakers will also be listening for cues on the wall Trump has promised to build on the Mexican border, and an infrastructure plan reportedly as large as $1 trillion. Those two proposals make conservatives worried about budget deficits nervous.
The first 100 days of a presidency are closely analyzed for success or failure, but both Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have set a 200-day mark, a nod to how challenging it will be to move their agenda.
Key conservatives, including Matt Drudge of The Drudge Report, Sean Hannity of Fox News and radio talk show host Mark Levin, are already getting restless with the lack of action.
Anne Coulter, a prominent Trump backer, recently wrote, “This is the Silence of the Lambs Congress. They’re utterly silent, emerging from the House gym or their three-hour lunches only to scream to the press about Trump.”
If Republicans fail to deliver, Trump may follow conservative pundits in directing fire at GOP legislative leaders.
Some lawmakers have acknowledged the slow start.
During an appearance last week on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the “Congress is stumbling” and Republicans “are tied up in knots.”
Graham, referring to intra-party differences over the House’s border-adjustment approach to tax reform, said, “The House is talking about a tax plan that won’t get 10 votes in the Senate… Republicans in the House and Senate have problems, and I hope we will get our act together.”
Ryan has pushed back at suggestions the Congress is flailing. During a recent interview with Hannity, he said Republicans are “on track” and predicted this Congress will be the most productive “in our lifetimes.”
If the GOP-controlled Congress can revamp the entire tax code for the first time in 30 years, build a wall, replace ObamaCare, boost the economy, and pass a broad transportation bill, Ryan will be right. But all of those items are heavy lifts.
The White House knows it won’t be easy.
During an appearance at CPAC on Thursday, senior White House adviser Steve Bannon said, “Everyday is going to be a fight.”
Bannon was specifically referencing the media, but he could have been talking about the entire Washington establishment, which he loathes.
The establishment itself seems ready for a war, making it appropriate that March is named after Mars, the Roman God of War.
Democrats have already signaled they will send a clear opposition message to Trump in relation to his speech on Tuesday.
The minority party has sought to delay Trump’s Cabinet picks and sees little reason to cooperate on legislative issues given grassroots anger on the left.
The media is also spoiling for a fight, something Trump and his staff appear ready for.
Trump thrives on controversy and counter-punching his enemies. It worked on the campaign trail, where he defied endless pundit predictions about his imminent demise and fended off countless distractions. But will it work while governing?
President Obama, armed with overwhelming Democratic majorities, got off to a fast start in his first year. He signed a pay equity bill in late January of 2009 and the following month, his stimulus package became law.
The Republican-Congress moved quickly on President George W. Bush’s tax cut bill. The measure wasn’t signed into law until June of 2001, but it cleared the House quickly in March. There is growing speculation that should comprehensive tax reform die this year, the Republican Plan B will be to cut tax rates.
What can get overlooked amid the 24-7 news cycle is that the GOP is in a significant transition from the opposition party to governing.
Most Republicans in Congress have been spending their terms battling a Democratic president and now must make the shift to playing offense on policy. Of the 238 Republicans in the House, only 67 served with Bush. In the Senate, 20 of the 52 Senate Republicans worked alongside Bush.
Those lawmakers must now get ready to work with a GOP president to get things done — including some things they may not be thrilled about, such as raising the debt ceiling.
March will reveal whether the Republican Party can do more than work as an opposition party.
Former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who was pushed out of Congress by the Tea Party, has his doubts. Last week, he predicted the party will not be able to coalesce behind an ObamaCare repeal and replace strategy.
“In the 25 years that I served in the United States Congress, Republicans never, ever one time agreed on what a healthcare proposal should look like. Not once,” Boehner said.
Without any Democratic help, House Republicans can afford a couple dozen defections. In the Senate, they can only afford to lose to GOP votes to repeal ObamaCare using budget reconciliation rules. Replacing the Affordable Care Act will require at least 8 Democratic votes.
There is little political incentive for the Democratic Party, which is now energized by its liberal base, to help Trump. Earlier this month, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told The Washington Post that Democrats could win back the Senate if Trump’s approval rating is at 35 percent next year.
“If Trump’s at 55 percent, we could lose the whole ball of wax,” he said.
So don’t look for Schumer to appear at a lot of White House signing ceremonies.
“If Republicans are successful, they will gain greater support among the electorate,” said O’Connell, the GOP strategist. But if they show themselves to be to be the ‘gang that can’t shoot straight’, Democrats will hang it around their neck like an albatross and gleefully obstruct all the way to the 2018 ballot box.”