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Is the GOP’s ambitious to-do list running out of time?

June 6, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT
Members of Congress are back in Washington, ready to return to their legislative to-do lists. Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate are diving right back into the debate over health care -- maybe the biggest item on the GOP agenda right now. But infrastructure, tax and spending bills and the debt ceiling are priorities, too. Lisa Desjardins and John Yang join Judy Woodruff for a closer look.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Members of Congress returned to Washington today for what could be a make-or-break few weeks for Republicans’ packed agenda, that as the Russia investigations and the upcoming testimony of former FBI Director James Comey continue to add complications for the party.

Lisa Desjardins reports.

MAN: The Senate will come to order.

LISA DESJARDINS: From the Senate floor …

MAN: Good morning. This hearing will come to order.

LISA DESJARDINS: … to committee rooms, to Capitol Hill hallways, congress is back from recess, and facing big issues with little time.

Senate Republicans are at a pivotal point, trying to write their health care bill.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky., Majority Leader: We had another of our ongoing discussions about the way forward on health care. We’re getting closer to having a proposal that we will be bringing up in the near future.

LISA DESJARDINS: They would like a vote this month, but Democrats point out Republican senators don’t yet have a plan with enough votes on their own.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, D-N.Y., Minority Leader: I have a message for our Republican colleagues. It’s very simple: Abandon repeal, stop sabotaging our health care system, and you will find Democrats waiting to work with you to improve the health care system.

LISA DESJARDINS: The White House, meanwhile, stressed the will on health care, but not the way.

SEAN SPICER, White House Press Secretary: By and large, every elected Republican in the House and the Senate campaigned on this for the last seven years.

LISA DESJARDINS: But with health care still unfinished, that means a backed-up GOP agenda, with infrastructure, tax reform, spending bills, not to mention raising the debt ceiling, all needing attention soon in order to pass.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: What a great team this is, what an unbelievable team.

LISA DESJARDINS: All of that brought the GOP’s key leaders, House and Senate, to the White House to meet with President Trump today.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So we’re working very hard on massive tax cuts, and we’re working very, very hard on the health care. And I think we’re going to have some very pleasant surprises for a lot of people.

LISA DESJARDINS: But even this meeting had a nod to fired FBI Director James Comey’s big hearing this week.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I wish him luck. Thank you, everybody.

LISA DESJARDINS: And the cloud that continues to hang over the president’s own agenda.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Lisa joins me now. She is joined by our own John Yang.

Great to have both of you here.

So, John, I’m going the start with you. You just heard Lisa’s reporting about what they’re doing on the hill. What is the White House trying to do right now?

JOHN YANG: Well, right now, they’re pushing infrastructure this week, yesterday, airways, tomorrow, waterways, Thursday, highways and streets, Friday, permitting process.

Now, you might think that means they have got an infrastructure bill ready to go. No. This is concepts, it’s proposals, it’s broad policy ideas. They really don’t have a timeline yet of when they think they will have an infrastructure bill ready to introduce in Congress.

They don’t even know yet whether it will be one bill or a series of legislative packages. They’re still on the drawing board.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sounds like it’s still early.

So, Lisa, talk specifically about the time crunch. What is Congress dealing with here?

LISA DESJARDINS: I think Congress is looking at essentially a 60-yard field goal to try and get everything done that it has to.

It has to be perfect. Look at the calendar, what Congress and Republicans hoped to do this year. This is what they wanted to happen, have health care passed in February and March and then tax reform. We should be talking about a bill right now. That’s what they wanted.

Let’s look at what’s actually happened instead. The calendar now instead has health care now. Obviously, that wasn’t passed until May. And then Senate is dealing with it now. So what’s happened to tax reform? Well, that’s been kicked back because we see the debt ceiling and the spending bill coming up this summer, further jamming the calendar, meaning tax reform might be pushed back to the fall, Judy.

And, as John said, this is one reason there’s not a timeline for infrastructure. It simply doesn’t fit, and it’s not clear that all these things fit either. We’re never seen Congress be able to get this much done in that amount of time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, John, as Lisa is suggesting, in addition to infrastructure, there is more that the White House wants to get through.

JOHN YANG: That’s right.

They want — they have got two things on their wish list, one thing on their must-do list. On the wish list, they want to get a health care vote before the August recess. They of course had hoped to have that done by now.

And then, as Lisa has pointed out, they want the tax bill introduced after Labor Day. They were hoping to have that passed by August. The must-do list, they have got to raise the debt ceiling, big debate inside the administration, do you do that clean with nothing attached to it, or do you have spending cuts and other spending reforms in order to get conservatives, fiscal conservatives to vote for it?

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Lisa, again, back to the Hill, when Republican leaders hear all this, how do they think they can get it done, or do they really?

LISA DESJARDINS: Yes, reality is a tricky concept right now on Capitol Hill.

But this is what I have gotten from sources that I trust. They believe there will be a Senate vote on health care before August. Now, there’s big questions over whether the House and Senate will come together on a health care package after that. That’s very much in question.

Tax reform, people are openly talking now that they’re not sure that they can actually get that done. I’m hearing voices in the Republican Party saying …

JUDY WOODRUFF: This year or …

LISA DESJARDINS: This year, and maybe not in the next cycle, because there’s so much heavy lifting. They’re now even starting to say maybe that becomes a tax cut, instead of sweeping tax reform.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, meantime, John, at the White House, the president is saying some things, his aides and spokespeople are sometimes — in fact, often saying something different.

JOHN YANG: Well, on the legislative process, he keeps talking as if health care is ready for a vote in the Senate. He talks about it as if the tax reform, the tax cut bill is ready for a vote in the Senate, and everything is just two weeks. In two weeks, we’re going to have a great plan.

But this is put off well into the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in fact, Lisa, we were talking about this earlier, what the president is saying, John is reporting in some of these expectations that he’s putting out there and tweeting about, including about other subjects, that then members of Congress, leadership have to react to, all of that is having an effect on the agenda.

LISA DESJARDINS: Right.

I think, until now, many Republicans have been able to shrug it off, as much as they themselves were frustrated by it. But today, Judy, Senator Bob Corker, generally a Trump ally, was literally speechless when he was told about the president’s tweet about Qatar.

Now, I also have to say, though, even though I think these distractions are actually affecting the agenda now, something bigger than that still is that Republicans can’t agree. That’s still the basic problem. Republicans in the House and Senate and in the White House have not come up with plans on these items. And that’s still the essential problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s a lot of moving parts, and I know the two of you are going to continue to report it.

And, as we speak, there’s more news coming out of the White House and the Hill tonight on all this.

Thank you very much, Lisa Desjardins, John Yang.

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