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The new Congress starts work this week, with the Republicans in control of both houses. Soon, they’ll also have the White House. What’s on the GOP agenda? William Brangham talks to Lisa Desjardins, Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report and NPR’s Tamara Keith about the goal of ditching Obamacare, confirmation hearings for Trump Cabinet nominees, tax reform and more.
The new Congress starts work this week, and Republicans will have majorities in the House and Senate. And very soon they will have a Republican president as well.
So, what's high on the GOP's agenda?
It's Politics Monday. And I'm joined, as always, by Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and Tamara Keith of NPR. And this week, they are also joined by our very own Lisa Desjardins.
Happy new year. Welcome to you all.
Happy new year.
Glad to be here.
Lisa, I want to start with you. You were just up on the Hill.
What is high on the GOP's list?
I could go into a lot of details, but essentially dismantling the eight years of the Obama presidency.
And they're going to start right away with actions that lead toward the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. It's complicated. In the end, it's going to be a three-step process, but they are going to start with the process this week with votes Tuesday, Wednesday.
They're also going to try and set up a process where they can start immediately rolling back some Obama regulations. Think about the environment in particular. And then there is going to be potentially a drawn-out fight over some of these Cabinet nominees.
Let's talk about the ACA there in particular.
How is that going to look?
Well, that's really — we all are going, well, nobody quite knows. Even Republicans don't quite know.
Ever since the Obamacare passed, Republicans have campaigned on dismantling it. And yet here we are, with a Republican Congress about to come in, a Republican president about to come in. They have a dismantling plan, but not a how to replace it plan.
And that is…
They have got the repeal part down.
The repeal part, not the replace part down, which is where all of the real action, when Lisa talks about how complicated it is, the replacing it.
I will tell you, just in talking with voters, even post-election, and I'm sure you saw this too during campaign, the frustration that voters have about Obamacare, especially in the last week before the election, when notices went out that their premiums were rising, is cost, very simply.
And I think, for Republicans, the danger is that, at the end of the day, if they repeal this and do not replace it with something that helps to bring costs down, that they are then going to get blamed for not fixing something that they also didn't feel particularly good about what Obama did to it.
And something like 43 percent of Americans actually support the Affordable Care Act. Now, that's obviously not a majority of Americans, but that's 43 percent of people who you really don't want to upset.
Also, there are something like 20 million people who have gotten health insurance as a result of the Affordable Care Act. There are people who have gotten expanded Medicaid, even in Republican states. And you have seen some Republican senators say things like, well, we don't want — let's not rush to do that just yet. You know, we need to find something for these people who've gotten health coverage who didn't have it.
So, the most unpopular parts of Obamacare also come with popular parts of the law that aren't necessarily advertised as part of the Affordable Care Act or things that people realize are part of it. And repeal gets rid of all those things, which is why there is a lot of fuzziness about replace or like whether they would phase in the repeal.
And maybe even — I have seen the idea that it could be pushed as far back as past the next presidential election.
So, they would repeal it perhaps this week on paper…
On a delay.
… but then push off the actual replace part.
It's even more complicated than that, thank goodness.
The repeal probably will be at the end of the month.
There are three steps. But we don't even need to get into that. The problem is they have — in this whole conversation — I'm sure our viewers are picking up on it — a space-time continuum problem with how they do this, because there are people who want the repeal to happen right away.
The truth is, a system like this Obamacare or any health care system takes a lot of time, and there are many Republicans who want to say, we want to take our time figuring out the replacement. There are many other Republicans who say, no, we have to do it in this first year for a couple of reasons.
One is the pressure on them. Second is, they know, the first year of the new president is one of the only times in recent history that you can get anything done.
All right, let's move on to Trump's nominees. He's put forward almost all of his nominees for Cabinet positions.
The Democrats are obviously going to have to pick which fights they want to have here. Who do you think? Who are you likely to see stand out as a place where the Democrats try to hold their ground?
Well, they are going to pick on pretty much everybody, it looks like, at this point, with the Democratic leadership saying, we're going to picking eight people and we're going to spend all of our time and energy poking at them.
Look, they don't have the votes to deny his Cabinet picks. What they can do is try to slow-walk the process, make it painful. The question is, is there some sort of backlash to that? Is the American public going to be interested in seeing a food-fight on Capitol Hill, when they said what we voted for was to see the American public — or to see Congress move ahead?
The American public is tired of watching the dysfunction in Washington. At the same time, you have got a bunch of Democrats who no longer have any leadership position. Right? They don't control the House or Congress.
They're in the wilderness.
Right. They're totally in the wilderness without an obvious leader. They need to have something to cling to and to give to their base to fire them up and keep them motivated.
These fights could definitely — they could be very good for the base. They could make the base feel good.
You have somebody like a Steven Mnuchin for Treasury, who headed a bank, helped take over a bank that had failed, and that bank ultimately foreclosed on thousands of homes. Lots of banks were foreclosing on thousands of people's homes.
But you have the potential for Senate Democrats to bring out people who lost their homes because of that bank that he headed.
They can make it very painful. They can — they can use this — Democrats can use this to try to poke some holes in the idea of a Donald Trump as populist. That's why also they are particularly interested in these very, very wealthy people that Trump has nominated for positions like Commerce.
His Cabinet of billionaires.
And, William, the Democrats are pushing especially hard to try and get tax returns for all of these nominees. They are probably not going to get them.
That's not a requirement. And it wasn't required of the Obama nominees, Republicans like to point out. So Democrats are holding these nominees to a higher standard than the Obama nominees, they say, but these are billionaires. They have complicated financial dealings.
Rex Tillerson, nominee for secretary of state, we want to know his exact relationship with Russia. The question is, like Amy is saying, how much do you — how much do they go out there — how many of these battles do they pick? What do they lose with the public as a new president with sort of a wind at his back is coming in by choosing right now eight of these battles?
But you don't think really that no one is going to get derailed?
No, it doesn't sound like it.
Tom Price, the HHS nominee and current member of Congress, is someone to watch, because The Wall Street Journal and others have reported that he invested in health care stocks while he was writing health care law. That's something to watch. But other than that…
But I think that Lisa raises a really good point, which is, there is always something that is unexpected, surprises, if we can recall 1992 and the so-called nanny problem that…
There was an outbreak of nanny problems.
There were outbreaks of nanny problems.
And remember this was a president-elect who wasn't necessarily expecting to win, and people around him not necessarily expecting it. A lot of these people have been moved very quickly through this process. Maybe not a whole lot of vetting had been done early enough, and when the vetting comes out in public, it is a lot messier.
It's a question.
One of the things that Trump talked about soon after the election was he wanted to put forward a big infrastructure spending plan.
And President Obama tried the same thing right after he was elected, and the GOP had no appetite for it at the time.
Do you think, Tam, that there is going to be a change of heart now, now that it's Trump in the driver's seat and he wants to spend a lot of money? Are they interested?
Just because Donald Trump campaigned on it doesn't mean that he's going to get open arms from Congress. And even Mitch McConnell has said, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. You know, this is not a front-burner issue for a lot of Republicans in Congress. It's sort of a back burner.
And so it's not the thing that is going to be pushed through quickly, because it is big government spending. And, you know, there is an argument that could be made that the stimulus that President Obama pushed through was very large, very hard to communicate to the public. A lot of people didn't understand it, thought their taxes were going up, when they were actually being cut, and that that was an albatross around him that lasted throughout his presidency, that even though it actually created jobs, it ultimately set up the Republicans to sort of be oppositional from the beginning, that maybe he overreached.
And so there is not a lot of appetite.
A quick note on that, something I'm watching for, is I wonder, because what is front burner for Republicans in Congress is they have been — it's almost like the turkey has been on the table and they just couldn't carve it for years — is tax reform.
They have felt so close to tax reform, and it just hasn't happened. They think it can happen.
They are dying to do it. And there's a possibility that perhaps we see some sort of tax credit incentive that helps build infrastructure, rather than a classic stimulus plan, at least to start. We will watch.
And think back to where President Obama was at this point when he was coming in, a lot of expectations about what he was able to do.
Eight years later, really, you look back, to Lisa's point, he was able to get most of it done, almost — any of it done in his first two years. And even then, he spent the last four years defending it.
Trying to push through more than one or two things is really, really difficult. They will be lucky if they get — and I think the priority, from what I'm hearing from folks on the Hill, is pretty much simple. It's taxes and it's Obamacare.
What will be interesting, what we're not hearing about is something that Donald Trump talked a lot about, whether it's infrastructure or building that wall. Those are two things that you're not hearing about in Congress.
All right, Tam, Amy, Lisa, thank you all very much for being here.
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