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Thursday, Mar 22, 2018
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After a chaotic start, Congress has made a conservative mark

WASHINGTON — After a halting start, the Republican-controlled 115th Congress — sometimes in collaboration with President Donald Trump, often despite him — has enacted surprisingly far-reaching conservative achievements in its first year, among them a long-promised rewrite of the tax code, oil drilling in the Arctic and a series of lifetime appointments to the judiciary.

For the new year, Republican leaders in the House have their sights on decades-old programs for the poor that they say are too easily exploited by those who don’t need them. Trump will move forward with a long-promised program to rebuild roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

And Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, is speaking gamely of bipartisanship, especially on legislation to protect young unauthorized immigrants brought to the country as children, whose Obama-era protection from deportation will run out in March.

On Jan. 20, the latest stopgap spending measure expires, giving lawmakers from both parties another chance to force resolutions on outstanding immigration and health care measures, along with efforts to raise caps on military and domestic spending. And an $81 billion package of relief for hurricane and wildfire victims that passed the House last week awaits Senate action.

"I don’t think most of our Democratic colleagues want to do nothing, and there are areas, I think, where we can get bipartisan agreement," McConnell told reporters Friday.

But all of those plans will play out in an election year that is shaping up as a referendum on Trump.

"Hope springs eternal, but they’d have to be a real reversal from the way they’ve operated now," said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader.

McConnell declared 2017 a year of "extraordinary accomplishment," a boast that only weeks ago seemed impossible. But a year marred by public spats between the president and Republican leaders in Congress was capped off with a rewrite of the tax code that cut corporate tax rates, favored business owners and reduced income tax rates, at least temporarily, for most families. The same law opened Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, a goal sought by Republicans for decades.

It also eliminated tax penalties in the Affordable Care Act intended to force most Americans to have health care. Ending the individual mandate was Republicans’ most direct blow to President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement after a year of misses and ineffectual attacks.

Trump touted those achievements Sunday.

"The Tax Cut/Reform Bill, including Massive Alaska Drilling and the Repeal of the highly unpopular Individual Mandate, brought it all together as to what an incredible year we had," Trump wrote on Twitter. "Don’t let the Fake News convince you otherwise .?.?. and our insider Polls are strong!"

Those achievements came after the quiet confirmation of 12 federal appeals court judges — the most in a single year since the appeals courts were established in 1891. The confirmations will remake the federal judiciary, stocking it with young and very conservative judges who will serve for decades to come. And those came along with the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

"With the new administration coming in, it has been more chaotic and more politicized than I would like to think," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said. "But we do have more accomplishments than I think we’re generally given credit for."

McConnell has warned that 2018 will be difficult. With the election in Alabama of Doug Jones, a Democrat, to the Senate, the Republican majority next year will be 51-49. Senate Republicans are eyeing modest measures in the coming months: to protect "Dreamers," young unauthorized immigrants, to revise the Obama-era Dodd-Frank financial regulatory law to protect small, community banks, and to stabilize health insurance markets by temporarily reinstating insurance subsidies suspended by Trump.

Trump will host McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin at Camp David in the first weekend of January to align on an agenda for 2018, starting with infrastructure, his legislative director, Marc Short, said on Fox News Sunday.

"Both Democrats and Republicans say that infrastructure is crumbling and we need to fix it," he said. "But the big question remains: Will Democrats put politics aside and actually work with us? They need to meet us halfway."

Ryan has bigger ambitions of taking on some of the government’s biggest programs; Republicans have singled out food stamps, welfare and Medicaid.

But after a bruising year, Democrats are leery. Republicans and Democrats had detailed plans to lure corporate profits parked overseas back home, and use some of that revenue to finance an infrastructure push. The new tax law ignored those proposals.

"They used it all to reduce taxes on the wealthiest corporations," Schumer said.

As for House plans to cut poverty programs, "It is just perfect, isn’t it? Tax breaks for the wealthiest people who haven’t punched a time clock in their lives so that we could cut back food stamps for single moms trying to feed hungry kids. Perfect," scoffed Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat.

By sheer numbers, Congress was less productive in 2017 than in 2009, the first year of Obama’s presidency. In 2009, Obama signed 125 bills into law, including a huge economic stimulus package, the expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program and legislation to regulate tobacco.

This year, Trump signed 93 measures into law, but of those, 15 were "joint resolutions of disapproval" that rolled back pending Obama-era regulations. Under the law that created such resolutions, they are not technically laws and cannot be filibustered in the Senate.

"Other than the tax bill, this first session of Congress has been a bit of a bust," said Steven S. Smith, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis. "And that probably means that this Congress is a bust, because first sessions tend to be a little bit more productive than second sessions."

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After a chaotic start, Congress has made a conservative mark