Shortly after winning reelection this month, Ted Cruz implored his Republican colleagues at a private lunch to use the GOP’s last days of unified control in Washington to ram through a boatload of conservative priorities.
The Texas senator urged Republicans to use budget reconciliation before Democrats take the House in January and that they do things like overhaul Obamacare, fund the border wall and chip away at regulations, according to attendees. Cruz argued this would be the GOP’s final chance to deploy the powerful party-line voting maneuver, which Republicans used to cut taxes last year while avoiding a Democratic filibuster.
Story Continued Below
His colleagues were unmoved. To them, it was just one more request in a sea of them in this lame-duck session. Among items on the wish list from various Republican factions: more tax cuts, a new trade deal, criminal justice reform, full funding of the border wall, a farm bill, protecting special counsel Robert Mueller and confirmation of a slew of nominees.
“Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody’s ready to take the trip,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). “I mean, if we want to get everything done we’re going to have to work past next week. It’s just that simple. And everybody wants to quit at 4 o’clock so they can go home to watch ‘Wheel of Fortune.’ And nobody wants to work on the weekends.”
He added: “We’re either going to have to work longer, which I’m prepared to do… or we’re going to have set priorities. Duh. You know?”
Cruz is among the senators who have said they are willing to clock longer hours this year. But the lame duck is a strange period of Congress: Leaders are eager to ink deals, ousted members want to get out of town, and rank-and-file senators are particularly aware of their leverage to slow things down to get what they want.
Conservatives have typically bemoaned the legislative frenzy of lame-duck sessions, with Cruz saying in 2014 that “Americans cannot trust politicians they can no longer hold accountable at the ballot box.”
But with a Democratic House takeover imminent, Cruz argues that Republicans should simply focus on getting as much done as possible. He’s not alone: Republicans are variously arguing that from the border wall to criminal justice reform to trade, the outcomes are about to get a whole lot worse for their party in January if they don’t act now.
“We have five more weeks with unified control of both houses of Congress, and I think we should be working tirelessly to deliver real results,” Cruz said in an interview.
Asked about the reversal by conservatives on the use of the lame duck, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) responded that he’s “stopped trying to hold Republicans to their own words.”
“They’re going to try and jam as much stuff through as possible,” Murphy said. “Would we make a different choice if we were in the same position?”
Yet what Cruz wants to do would take weeks and require total cooperation with the House on passing new budget bills and hopping through procedural hoops, not to mention unity on controversial issues within the narrowly divided Senate GOP.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is operating with a more realistic view of the world: He’s essentially promised to fund the government, pass the farm bill and confirm nominees — and whatever else gets done, so be it.
Yet Republican senators are eager to savor the last few days of Republican rule, which may not come again for years. Democrats just took the House back after eight years in the wilderness, and there’s no guarantee that Republicans can win it back and achieve unified control in 2020.
So in GOP meetings on Capitol Hill, “It’s Christmas time. … Everybody’s got their wish list,” said McConnell’s top deputy, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.
“We’re running out of time, and we’ve got so much competition for that limited time. At some point, people are going to want to start leaving here and go home,” he said.
Right now, there is worry that as soon as the government is funded, ousted House Republicans will want to go home. No final decision has been made, but Senate Republicans are anticipating being in town until about Dec. 14, according to senators and aides, leaving time for perhaps one extra ambitious agenda item, which will likely need to be passed by the House to become law. Judges are confirmed solely by the Senate, making that another option.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) thinks everyone should settle in for a longer session. If the Trump administration sends Congress its new trade deal with Mexico and Canada by the end of November, lawmakers could take it up in the waning days of December.
Toomey believes Republicans are going to end up with a much worse deal if they wait until Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) becomes speaker. He proposes reconvening between Christmas and New Year’s to work out the trade deal in Congress and approve it, potentially evading Democrats’ demands or the prospect that Pelosi simply won’t bring up the bill.
Otherwise “at best, the agreement moves to the left, they accept more protectionist provisions, it becomes a worse agreement and maybe it passes. From the administration’s point of view, they have to contend with the very real possibility it never passes at all,” Toomey said.
Toomey acknowledges that prospects for his idea are “not looking real good,” and a major tax overhaul seems even less realistic than that, given the focus on the government spending bill, border wall and farm bill. Criminal justice reform has been the subject of heated debate at several recent Senate GOP meetings, with Vice President Mike Pence pitching the bill on Tuesday.
For advocates, a best-case scenario would be the criminal justice bill comes to the floor after the spending legislation is clinched and a shutdown is averted. But it could take a week to finish, all while opponents like Kennedy and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and supporters like Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) lob attacks at one another. McConnell is gauging support in the caucus and has not made a final decision on whether to call it up, senators said.
Trump has endorsed the criminal justice bill, but he’s more engaged in the border wall debate, said a Republican senator in regular contact with the president: “The president’s priority is government funding and the wall.”
If the funding talks fall apart and the government shuts down, what can be accomplished in the lame duck decreases significantly. But if negotiations over the next few days go smoothly, Congress could conceivably check off another item or two.
Then sometime in mid-December, everyone will be ready to go home. Well, almost everyone.
“I’m all for getting everything we can. This is my last time to have an impact. I’m fine to stay longer,” said retiring Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).
He then paused to consider that his opinion might not be shared by all his colleagues. “But I do know we’ve got to prioritize and we probably will not get everything on the agenda done.”