Early news reports from a weekend retreat at Camp David between President Trump, Sen. Mitch McConnell, and House Speaker Paul Ryan suggest that a Ryan-backed plan to revamp the nation’s welfare laws along partisan lines is now dead.
Little noticed in the reports, however, was the fact that Trump left the door open to working with Democrats on a more bipartisan plan — something that is not completely inconceivable, despite the poisonous partisanship that has marked Washington of late.
Ryan had headed to the weekend retreat hoping to win over the president and McConnell. The president was initially supportive, but McConnell opposed the plan as undoable in the Senate, where Republicans hold a narrow 51-vote majority, and Trump eventually sided with McConnell.
According to Politico:
The increasingly dire political environment for the GOP is one of the reasons senior Republicans have leaned on Ryan to scale back his entitlement reform ambitions. A majority of Ryan’s more conservative conference are eager to cut spending and would surely embrace his ideas. But doing so could put the two dozen House Republicans in Hillary Clinton-carried districts in an even more tenuous position.
Two Republican sources said Ryan has narrowed his entitlement push to welfare programs only, like food stamps and housing for the poor. He’ll likely push for work requirements for adults who do not have disabilities and frame this issue as one that helps — not hurts — the poor by breaking the “cycle of poverty” and helping the unemployed get jobs. Republicans would likely be able to target such programs through powerful budget reconciliation procedures that prevent the use of the filibuster in the Senate.
While Trump and White House officials have signaled a desire to take up the matter, it’s unclear if they will be able to convince a more cautious McConnell to get on board.
After this weekend’s meeting in Camp David, the answer was apparently no, at least not as Ryan had framed it. But Trump suggested that he was still open to a bipartisan plan during a Saturday press event.
“It’s a subject that’s very dear to our heart,” Trump said. “We’ll try and do something in a bipartisan way, otherwise we’ll be holding it for a bit later.”
“But we’ll be looking to do that very much in a bipartisan way,” he added.
Trump’s Saturday statements reflected McConnell’s views, which he expressed last month:
“I’ve been here a while, and the only time we’ve been able to do that is on a bipartisan basis,” McConnell told reporters about welfare reform before leaving Washington for the Christmas recess. “It was Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill, who raised the age of Social Security and that was before I got here, so it’s been a while.”
“The sensitivity of entitlements is such that you almost have to have a bipartisan agreement in order to achieve a result,” he added.
Previous Bipartisan Efforts
Ironically, bipartisan efforts were underway on the issue as recently as the summer of 2015. According to a SIRC story from that year:
In July, House Republicans unveiled a draft proposal that they had negotiated with Democrats. The draft included a proposal for social impact partnerships, also known as social impact bonds, similar to legislation introduced by Reps. Todd Young (R-IN) and John Delaney (D-MD). Young also introduced separate legislation that would create a What Works Clearinghouse for welfare programs, similar to the one that now exists at the Department of Education, and a bill that would authorize and evaluate coordinated care for TANF recipients.
At a July 15 hearing, LaDonna Pavetti, vice president for family income support policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, lent the bill cautious support. “The draft bill doesn’t go far enough but it provides a strong starting point for bringing about meaningful change,” she said.
Those efforts were later sidetracked when Ryan decided to wait until he had a Republican president who would sign a bill more to his liking. Now that he has one, the answer is still no.
Now that a partisan GOP bill is off the table, will Democrats be willing to work with Republicans on something like the 2015 bipartisan draft they previously agreed to? In the current political environment that seems unlikely, but stranger things have happened.
While a comprehensive welfare bill would probably be too heavy a lift, some low-profile tinkering to existing law may be possible. Bipartisan changes to some welfare-related laws, such as child welfare, frequently fly below the radar. A long-term reauthorization of the federal home visiting law (MIECHV) could also provide added incentive for the players to come together and quietly work out a deal.
- Reuters, What Republicans Mean When They Talk About Welfare Reform (January 8, 2018)
- Washington Post, Why Trump and Republicans are Suddenly Talking up Bipartisanship (January 8, 2018)