No Republican cakewalk for Trump and 115th Congress

Barely into the first day of the 115th session of the U.S. Congress on Tuesday, Republicans learned why holding all the power won't necessarily mean an easy path to fulfilling a conservative wish list.

Critical Trump tweet and Republican reversal on ethics office hints at 'rocky' road ahead

House Speaker Paul Ryan shakes hands with House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017, after he was re-elected to his leadership post, as the 115th U.S. Congress convened. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Well, that was fast.

Barely into the first day of the 115th session of the U.S. Congress on Tuesday, Republicans learned why holding all the power won't necessarily mean an easy path to fulfilling a conservative wish list.

Republicans believe their control in the House, the Senate and the White House gives them a mandate to push through an ambitious suite of reforms, including repealing Obamacare, slashing corporate tax rates and confirming president-elect Donald Trump's new cabinet and pick for Supreme Court justice.

Nothing will be be quite so simple, though, if the past 24 hours is any indication.

Gutting the ethics office

A head-spinning reversal midday Tuesday scrapped House Republicans' plan from the previous night to vote to de-fang the independent ethics watchdog.

Democrats had decried the proposal to weaken the Office of Congressional Ethics, created in 2008 in the wake of bribery and corruption cases. The measure orchestrated by Republican leaders would have stripped the office of its ability to appoint a spokesperson and disclose investigative findings.

The change of heart came from within the party, after president-elect Donald Trump criticized the timing of the vote, though he slammed the ethics office as "unfair."

That the majority of the Republican caucus acted in opposition to its own leadership "says something right off the bat about how manageable this Republican caucus may be in the House," said Steve Billet, director of the master's in Legislative Affairs at George Washington University.

"A rocky start," he said, attributing the mess to an anti-establishment Republican Freedom Caucus bent on asserting its "independent-mindedness."

Religious books from the Library of Congress sit on a table awaiting mock swearing-in ceremonies for members of the U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday. (Cliff Owen/Associated Press)

David Frum, a former speech writer for Republican president George W. Bush, also saw in the dissent a sign of possible intra-party complications to come.

"I would not assume this relationship will be smooth," Frum told CBC News Network. "And I think you'll see a lot of struggles for power between a Republican Congress and a very ideological agenda, and a president Trump with an agenda of power for himself."

It's but one setback for House Republicans in a year with plenty of big-ticket items left on the docket, of course.

Repealing Obamacare

Erasing President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act tops the list of priorities for Republican lawmakers, but it could take years to get there.

The law that gave 20 million people health insurance coverage will almost certainly be repealed, according to congressional expert Joshua Huder, a senior fellow with the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. The only question is how they'll overcome some snags, "both moral and procedural," while devising a replacement.

Republican passage of repeal legislation last year was like "firing blanks" with Obama still holding veto power, Huder said.

You can't just get rid of insurance for 15-20 million people and not face some consequence.- Joshua Huder, Government Affairs Institute, Georgetown University

"Now they've got live ammunition," Huder said. "But you can't just get rid of insurance for 15-20 million people and not face some consequence."

Huder expects behind-the-scenes infighting and tweaking of legislation to preserve parts of Obamacare that have public support, like provisions regarding pre-existing conditions and allowing adults under 26 to stay on their parents' plans, while scrapping the overall policy.

That, Huder said, is the "paradox" the Republicans are up against: "The promise to repeal Obamacare is a cornerstone of their platform, but which parts do we want to get rid of?"

Health and Human Services Secretary-designate Tom Price, a Republican congressman from Georgia, arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Fixing roads and building the wall

Much less certain are the kinds of "pie in the sky" promises Trump made about a $1-trillion infrastructure bill to fix roads and bridges nationwide, Huder said.

That could only be achieved by "some weird coalition" dominated by Democrats and Republicans "who are suddenly on board with things they're not normally supportive of." Either way, Huder can't imagine House Republicans being so agreeable to finding an extra trillion for infrastructure spending without insisting on drastic cuts to spending programs like Medicare or Medicaid, which Trump could oppose.

Same goes for the likelihood of Trump's 3,100-kilometre wall along the southern border, added Billet.

"Obviously the Mexicans are not inclined to pay for this, and won't pay for this," Billet said of the wall, which the Washington Post projects would cost $25 billion.


The Democrats lost leverage as a result of a 2013 vote to get rid of the filibuster for executive nominations. The move, known as the "nuclear option," was borne of exasperation at the time with Republicans' refusal to consider their judicial and cabinet-level nominees.

That power play has now come back to haunt the Democrats.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives are sworn in on the House floor on the first day of the new session of Congress on Tuesday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Although Huber says "they don't have a lot of procedural tricks up their sleeve anymore," it might still be possible to peel off three moderate Republican senators or two at the committee level to deny Trump some of his cabinet nominees.

Democrats have 48 seats in the Senate; Republicans have 52.

Delays are one lever the Democrats can still explore, with threats to drag out confirmations with hearings for candidates they find particularly egregious. 

Trump's as-yet-unnamed Supreme Court nominee could also be filibustered, as Republicans would need to clear the 60-vote supermajority threshold. But Huber warned Democrats would need to tread carefully here, lest they spur the Republicans to invoke the "nuclear option" themselves, changing the rules to require only a simple majority for the high court appointment.

Undoing Obama-era regulations

Pulling back from regulations already on the books, such as Obama-era rules for curbing carbon emissions, would be a substantial undertaking, Billet says.

Unless the new president tries to undo some regulations by executive order, "it would require the regulations to be rewritten, and then those would be subject to challenge in the courts."

Republican leaders believe they have another way to roll back what they consider Obama's regulatory overreach: By using the Congressional Review Act, Republicans would be able to repeal rules enacted within the prior 60 legislative days with a simple majority vote in the Senate.

Factoring in breaks, the 60 in-session days would extend the deadline back to late May, putting at risk 150 rules adopted since, according to an analysis by the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center.


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong