Hill Republicans searching for a unifying agenda

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  • Republican leaders are publicly optimistic that they'll be able to pivot to tax reform
  • The Hill has also had to focus on passing money for hurricane aid

(CNN)It's been eight months since Republicans began governing with control of the White House and both branches of Congress, but the party is still trying to find an elusive, unifying agenda item it can pass.

It's been a long spring and summer for the new majority and there are no indications the fall -- despite the urgency to enact at least one major win for the President -- will be much easier. After failing to repeal Obamacare, Republican leaders are publicly optimistic that they'll be able to pivot to tax reform with House Speaker Paul Ryan saying last week he expected a new tax policy to be enacted by the New Year.
But passing a major GOP agenda item at a time when the President's former chief strategist Steve Bannon is openly threatening to primary sitting members of the GOP's majority, the President's campaign is still being investigated for possible connections to Russia and the Hill's conservatives are still reeling from a clean-increase in the debt ceiling last week, is tenuous.
    Asked what the GOP's "unifying agenda" is now, Arizona Sen. John McCain laughed at the question.
    "Excuse me?" McCain asked. "Why do pigs fly?"
    Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, lamented that's "a long question," as he walked onto the floor for a vote.
    "You need to talk to (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell about that. He sets the GOP agenda," said Sen. Jim Risch, a Republican from Idaho. "All you can do is put one foot in front of the other and try to make progress and we made substantial progress, but obviously there have been some things that are disappointing."
    "I've never seen a batter hit 1,000. It just doesn't happen," Risch added.
    The deck is cleared (at least until December) now that Congress averted a government shutdown and raised the country's borrowing limiting last week, but those are just the basics of governing, the bare minimum. And, even raising the debt ceiling left the GOP divided. President Donald Trump ultimately cut his deal with Democrats on the package, to the surprise of GOP leadership. And in a closed-door House conference meeting last Friday, House Republicans laid into Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin after Mnuchin told the conference to vote for the debt ceiling bill "for me." In the end, it took Democratic votes just to keep the government's lights on.
    For now, the GOP's got a few more must-pass agenda items. The Children's Health Insurance Program must be re-authorized at the end of the month and if Republicans want to move on to tax reform and use a special process known as reconciliation, they have to pass a budget. Reconciliation allows Republicans to pass legislation with just 51 votes.
    "I think we're going to have to do it pretty soon," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said Monday of the budget. "The President has cleared the decks from the usual shutdown-default narrative and given us some space to do that but we will need to act pretty quickly."
    Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, also indicated Monday, he'd like to move a tax bill for hurricane victims along with further aide relief, a reflection of how part of the GOP's agenda has been chosen for them after a series of natural disasters around the country.
    "There seems to be a lot of bipartisan support following the disaster in Texas, Louisiana, and of course now be in Florida and up the East Coast. So, I hope we could do that quickly so people who had uninsured losses could at least have the benefit of the tax code as they did post-Katrina," Cornyn said.
    But all of this is dependent on the GOP's rank-and-filers putting their differences aside and working together to help their leaders get a win.

    Derailed after Obamacare repeal

    This year was supposed to be different for Republicans.
    They finally elected a Republican President, a GOP commander-in-chief who could sign an Obamacare repeal and finally enact their agenda. What no one accounted for was that the fact that at least on the first item on the agenda -- repealing the Affordable Care Act -- did not have the conference-wide support it appeared to have at campaign rallies or fundraising dinners. Republicans in the House and Senate voted dozens of times to repeal Obamacare when they knew Obama wouldn't sign it, but when it came time to find consensus on a Republican bill, the votes weren't there in the Senate.
    "We got everything we need. Now, it's time to see if we have what it takes," said Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy. "I think part of our problem with health care was we had paralysis through analysis. ... Toward the end of all the meetings, we could finish each others' sentences. There was also a lot of fear around the politics of it. Politics permeates everything around here. And some people, quite frankly need to grow some oranges. They were sent up here to do a job. They certainly talked about it on their campaigns and now it's time."
    Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina, didn't dispute that the party's struggled at times to find its way. He said that the schism within his party was never clearer than during the defeat of the GOP's skinny health care bill in July.
    "You saw it at about 2:30 a.m. about a month ago," Tillis said in reference to the vote when McCain and two other Sens. Lisa Murkowksi and Susan Collins voted against the GOP health care bill. "We've still got to stay after it. The problem exists."
    Time is running out on a GOP-only Obamacare repeal bill, however. The Senate's parliamentarian has given guidance that the budget that enabled the Senate to use reconciliation for health care will expire at the end of the month.
    For now, Republicans appear united behind pursuing tax reform. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady has said his committee is working around the clock now to unveil a bill sooner than later.
    When it comes to actually passing a big agenda item like tax reform, Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, offered his party this advice: "keep it simple."
    "If you get in the weeds, red ants come after you," Roberts said.