GOP agenda isn't clear yet should Republicans keep House

Republicans not making sweeping legislative plans

By LAUREN FOX AND JEREMY HERB, CNN
Win McNamee/Getty Images

(CNN) - If Republicans defy the political odds and hold the House majority in November, it would cement the party's power for another two years and give President Donald Trump unfettered ability to advance his agenda in his first term.

But Republicans aren't making sweeping legislative plans just yet. Instead, the conference is focused on holding their majority on the campaign trail and preparing for a tough speaker's race back in Washington that will have an outsized impact on how the party moves forward.

"It's hard for anybody to truly make plans," one Republican aide told CNN, adding "there is not a lot of guidance from the White House."

Republicans' chances are still long, but in the wake of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's bitter confirmation battle, Trump's rising approval rating and tightening polls, Republicans in the House have seen their odds of maintaining the majority improve in recent weeks, with GOP aides across Capitol Hill voicing more confidence that they'll maintain the speaker's gavel after the midterms.

A Republican win would be seen as a vindication for the GOP, but also for Trump. It would be a sign that the President's surprise victory in 2016 wasn't a fluke, but instead a mandate that Trump's brand of Republican politics -- from his brash rhetoric to his hard right turn on immigration, to his disregard traditional GOP orthodoxy on trade -- was the future. And it would likely plunge the party deeper into following Trump's lead, making members even more likely to ignore his foibles and embrace a figure who will have proven his brand of populist conservatism could help them win again in 2020.

Still, multiple Republican aides say that preparations for a GOP majority have been limited in the House — even as outside groups have begun to call for the GOP to repeal the Affordable Care Act again or pass a tax bill to make individual cuts permanent — because everyone is waiting to see how the campaign and the race for speaker unfolds.

The race for speaker

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is seen as the heir apparent to the speakership, having the backing of the current holder of that office, Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, who's retiring in January, and given McCarthy's cozy relationship with Trump. But the California Republican has yet to announce his candidacy. Majority Whip Steve Scalise, of Louisiana, has said he won't compete against McCarthy directly, but has indicated he'd run for the job if McCarthy couldn't get the votes. And, Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan, of Ohio, has also announced he's running for the gavel.

Republicans expect they will lose some moderate members in the midterms even if they keep the House, making the conference overall more conservative and the House Freedom Caucus more powerful -- a confluence of factors that is sure to shape the GOP's policy priorities in 2019 and could also tip the scales in the race for House speaker.

"You get to a very large double-digit number that has significant influence over the overall conference," said Andy Roth, vice president of government affairs at the Club for Growth.

The race could be an opportunity for conservatives, who have enough power in the conference to keep McCarthy from winning the speakership, to trade votes for speaker for plum committee assignments or policy priorities. What happens in the race is sure to impact the future of the House's policy priorities.

Republicans look to policy

The agenda is still up for grabs, but there are some clear targets.

"Republican haven't offered much of an agenda for 2019. I think it is actually a mistake that we haven't given our voters much to be excited about other than blocking Nancy Pelosi," said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and former aide to Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida.

Outside groups and conservatives are already putting pressure on House leaders to give Obamacare repeal another go. If Republicans hold the House with a slightly more conservative conference and Republicans in the Senate gain one or two seats, the thinking is that a repeal would have an easier time getting through Congress than it did in 2017.

But, there is little appetite among rank-and-file members to try again on a policy that ultimately left the party divided and disorganized.

Asked about what guidance they would give to members hoping to try to repeal the law, one Republican Senate aide responded, "Besides 'don't'?'"

It "would be a total disaster," the aide said. The GOP Congress "wasted an entire year last time and we didn't really have a plan. Plus, we lost the messaging war on (pre-existing conditions). Why keep waging it?"

Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he would focus in a new Congress on getting the price of health care down. But asked about another go at repeal and replace of Obamacare, Walden said, "I suggest they go start that in the Senate."

Taxes and immigration

In the closing weeks of the campaign, Trump has focused his message on a migrant caravan that is still weeks away from the US border and a tax cut that Republican leaders hadn't been planning on.

If the GOP holds the House, some argue that Republicans in that chamber should just take notes from Trump on what to do.

"I think if you held onto the House you could credibly say that immigration and tax were reasons," said Tim Chapman, the executive director of Heritage Action, the campaign arm of the Heritage Foundation.

On the tax side, there is an openness to doing more.

In a statement, Kevin Brady, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said earlier this week that they plan to work with the White House on a new tax bill.

"We will continue to work with the White House and Treasury over the coming weeks to develop an additional 10 percent tax cut focused specifically on middle-class families and workers, to be advanced as Republicans retain the House and Senate," said Brady, R-Texas.

While Republicans have long been divided on how to approach immigration, with a more conservative conference and GOP-controlled Senate, there may also be an appetite to try to pursue that again.

In summer 2018, Republicans in the House languished in a multi-week debate about immigration, ultimately bringing a series of bills to the floor that couldn't pass. The same debate stumped the Senate in the spring. But if Republicans win the House in November, aides and outside groups say there will be a clear mandate to follow Trump's lead on immigration, while ultimately it will be up to the House leaders to decide on a legislative strategy.

And, regardless of the outcome in November, Republicans are going to have a fight with Democrats over the funding of a border wall in the lame-duck session in December.

Justice Department would stay on the investigations hot seat

The White House is already preparing for the prospect of an onslaught of oversight requests should Democrats take back the House, but a Republican majority next year would likely mean that the Justice Department will be on the congressional hot seat.

Republicans on the Judiciary and Oversight committees have waged a months-long battle with the Justice Department and the FBI over documents related to the Hillary Clinton email and Trump-Russia investigations. The dispute has gotten so heated that they've threatened to try to hold Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in contempt.

That investigation is likely to conclude when the outgoing chairmen of both committees leave Congress at the end of this year, but that doesn't mean that Republicans will stop their pursuit of those documents, although a long-rumored change of leadership at the Justice Department after the midterms could alter the calculus.

"What will bring it to a close is the Department of Justice and FBI giving us the information that has either been requested for subpoenaed," said House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, of North Carolina, who has led the impeachment push against Rosenstein. "The quicker they do that, the quicker we get that, but obviously there's some existing subpoenas that need to be complied with."

On the House Oversight Committee, which has a broad mandate to investigate the federal government, Republicans aren't nearly as likely to let the subpoenas fly as Democrats would be. Rep. Steve Russell, the Oklahoma Republican who has expressed an interest in chairing the committee next year, said he will pursue any government wrongdoing, but he also wants to prioritize reform efforts like postal reform and strengthening subpoena power for inspectors general.

"We have to look at investigations, sure, that's part of it, but we can't neglect the reform piece of it," Russell said in an interview. "And it's very important we do things like stop our government waste, strengthen our inspector generals, our government accounting officials."

In the Senate, Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, is still leading his committee's investigation into 2016 Russian election meddling. Unlike the House, where the Russia probe became a partisan fight, Burr and Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, the panel's ranking member, continue to be on the same page with the probe, which is likely to spill into the new Congress before a final report is written.

One wild card for a Republican Congress next year will be dealing with the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller, who could ultimately issue a report that's sent to Congress. But it's still not clear when exactly Mueller will wrap up or how he will present his findings.

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