The debate over what to do about Obamacare isn't just keeping Republicans from achieving one of their major campaign promises. It's holding up much of their legislative agenda too.
Blessed with a surprise Republican president ready and willing to sign legislation that Barack Obama had blocked, but hampered by their slim 52-vote majority in the Senate, the congressional GOP devised a strategy in November that would enable them to achieve their two biggest legislative priorities: repealing the Affordable Care Act and slashing tax rates.
The plan would proceed in two steps. First, Congress would pass a dummy budget resolution as soon as it convened. What that resolution said about spending wouldn't matter; all that mattered was that it contained "reconciliation instructions." Those instruct committees in each house to produce legislation. That legislation would not be filibusterable, so long as it stuck to a given set of budget-related topics. So the legislation could pass the Senate with 52 votes, or even 50 plus the vice president, without needing any Democratic support.
The plan was to use this power to quickly pass an Obamacare repeal bill along party lines, hopefully by spring. Then Congress would pass another, real budget, with detailed spending levels and more reconciliation instructions. This time, reconciliation would be used to pass a big tax reform package, cutting rates for individuals and corporations, among other big changes. This, too, could pass with only Republican support. So Republicans would be able to easily, without any cooperation from Democrats, accomplish two big policy goals.
This is still the plan, nearly a month after Donald Trump took office. "We've had a timeline for doing this, and we haven't changed our timeline at all. We're actually on schedule," House Speaker Paul Ryan insisted on Morning Joe Wednesday morning. "We have to do Obamacare first. … Spring and summer is tax reform, winter and spring is Obamacare."
It's hard to see how that all comes together in time. Congress did pass a dummy budget resolution with reconciliation instructions enabling it to repeal Obamacare. But there's no sign that Republicans have the votes to actually pass an Obamacare repeal plan, and it's unclear what a successful replacement proposal would look like. And until an Obamacare plan is agreed to, Congress can't move on to tax reform or pass a real budget for fiscal year 2018, which starts on October 1.
"Everybody's working under the assumption that you can't do them concurrently," Gordon Gray, director of fiscal policy for the conservative American Action Forum and a former policy adviser for Sens. Rob Portman and John McCain, says. "They have time. But it's clear they have a lot of decisions to make before they're ready to move on."