WASHINGTON — Mitch McConnell has purposefully steered clear of previewing what policies a Republican-led Senate would prioritize if his party recaptures the chamber in a month.
Unburdened by such political calculus, a band of conservative policy mavens have for months been sketching out the most palatable ideas a narrow GOP majority could pursue.
The state of play for the Senate remains scrambled, with a bevy of margin-of-error races in Nevada, Wisconsin and Georgia likely to determine which party wields power in 2023. McConnell himself has signaled less confidence now than in earlier months when GOP prospects looked rosier.
But with an increasingly rebellious caucus and a slate of senators positioning themselves for potential presidential runs, McConnell will face an age-old Capitol Hill riddle if he commands a majority: Are you more interested in making long-lasting policy or driving an immediate political point on the roadway to 2024?
The cynical answer is a no-brainer.
Yet even with strong incentives to target the Biden administration with contrasts and investigations, a Republican Senate majority would also face calls to demonstrate its own governing chops. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida made waves earlier this year when he unveiled an 11-point governing plan that includes an income tax hike on the lowest-earning Americans.
McConnell greeted Scott’s stack of ideas with a cold shoulder of non-commitment. But it may be conservatives who apply the most pressure on him to engineer a proactive policy program that goes beyond opposing the Democratic president who will still wield a veto pen.
Yuval Levin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who served on former President George W. Bush’s policy staff, said Republicans would surely engage in “posturing and a lot of messaging bills” where the party just attempts “to put Democrats in a tough place looking to 2024.”
But during a question-and-answer session with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, Levin also indicated that the party would help itself politically by engaging substantively on a discrete set of attainable policy goals.
“I think it’s still very much the case that Republican politicians don’t enter enough into the details of public policy, don’t often enough think of themselves as reformers, and that leaves them less able to offer their voters real solutions to the kinds of problems they face,” he said.
'What are conservatives for'
If the GOP wins the majority, it will likely be due to the public’s discontent with inflation and unhappiness with the way Democrats handled the economic tumult coming out of the pandemic. McConnell hammers the impact of inflation on regular Americans several times a week in his Senate floor speeches and GOP campaign advertising has mimicked his refrains.
Conservative policy analysts acknowledge that there aren’t many legislative tools to directly combat rising prices, so the GOP is likely to focus on ancillary issues, like reining in the regulatory state and expanding energy production.
“It’s hard. There aren’t any obvious easy things. … Nothing jumps out as the number one thing to do,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who served as Bush’s chief economist and is now president of the American Action Forum.
“What are conservatives for is sometimes a funny question,” said Tim Carney, another conservative think tank fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who also appeared at a BPI forum. “Because it’s like, we know what we’re against on the national level, but what we’re for is not always something that Congress can do anything about.”
First and foremost, a McConnell-commanded majority would likely block any large spending allocations, arguing that the original 2021 American Rescue Plan was excessive fiscal stimulus that triggered record inflation
“The only thing the so-called Rescue Plan rescued the country from was stable prices and a functioning economy,” McConnell deadpanned in August.
Instead, look for GOP lawmakers to probe the $1.9 trillion package as a way to showcase the risk of deficit-financed stimulus. That’ll be just one focus of their oversight.
Sen. Rand Paul has already promised a vigorous review of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, with an acute spotlight on the deliberations and actions of his favorite whipping boy: Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Energy, family policy and immigration
One of the first pieces of legislation policy analysts expect a GOP Congress to tee up is a bill promoting more aggressive production and use of fossil fuels, designed to rebuff the Biden administration’s acceleration toward dependency on renewables.
With gas prices continuing to be a conspicuous signal of economic strain, House Republicans have already written a plan to prioritize the streamlining of permits for new energy projects. And late last month, McConnell praised a measure by Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia that would substantially reform that process.
Liquified natural gas and hydropower are also prioritized in the GOP playbook. Republicans widely panned President Joe Biden’s flotation of a federal gas tax repeal this summer, so returning to that idea seems unlikely.
Levin pointed to a bill from Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Tom Cotton of Arkansas coupling an E-verify requirement of employers with an increased minimum wage as a proposal that could earn support from Democrats and Biden, while showing incremental progress on immigration, an issue that has stymied both parties’ for decades.
In 2021, McConnell allowed that a hike of the current $7.25 hourly federal minimum wage was “worth discussing,” but did not go further.
Another Romney-hatched proposal to expand the child tax credit has won some support for Democrats and could be another area of bipartisan agreement. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is also for expanding the tax credit for children, including the “unborn,” a provocative idea in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to nullify Roe v. Wade.
But such a venture might require cobbling together a coalition without McConnell’s blessing.
Last year, the Kentuckian decried Democrats’ child tax credits as “welfare deposits” that flow directly to families who have entered the country illegally.
Immigration will be another area ripe for Republican action.
Investigations and impeachment
Some conservatives have floated launching impeachment proceedings against Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, due to what they see as his failure to stymie the flow of migrants entering the country through the southern border.
But since only one Cabinet official in history has ever been impeached — Secretary of War William Belknap in 1876 — forcibly removing Mayorkas seems unlikely.
The far-right wing of the GOP coalition will be tempted to initiate impeachment proceedings against Biden. McConnell tossed cold water on that prospect when the rumblings began last year, saying, “The president is not going to be removed from office with a Democratic House and a narrowly Democratic Senate. That’s not going to happen.”
But if Republicans control both chambers, McConnell won’t have that escape hatch available to pull. It’s hard to see there being much appetite for impeachment proceedings, especially if Biden looks vulnerable to defeat at the ballot box in 2024, but that doesn’t mean some of the most rabid members of the newly empowered Republican caucus won’t try.
“I don’t think anyone’s really serious about that,” Freedomworks executive vice president Noah Wall, said about the prospect of impeaching Biden. “I don’t think anyone wants to make the vice president, president.”
But just because McConnell and other Senate leaders will maneuver to avoid impeachment, doesn’t mean that they won’t embrace aggressive oversight of the first two years of Democratic Party governance.
Along with Paul, Rep. James Comer has pledged aggressive investigations of various facets of the Biden administration.
Comer, who is poised to become the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee next year, has already pinpointed his top priority: Hunter Biden.
Of particular interest to Comer is Hunter Biden’s overseas business dealings in China and what role the president had in them.
“I think it’s safe to say now that the Oversight investigation into Hunter Biden is now shifting to an investigation of Joe Biden,” Comer recently told Fox News’ Sean Hannity.
Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser set to retire at year’s end, is most likely to be the target of a congressional subpoena from both Comer and Paul, who has spent the past two years grilling Fauci’s handling of the response to the global COVID-19 outbreak.
While Fauci has appeared numerous times before Senate committees, he has balked at invitations to field questions from House members.
That’ll change if Comer grabs the gavel.
“We have a lot of questions for Dr. Fauci,” Comer said in August. “We’ve already told Dr. Fauci to preserve all of his documents and all of his emails.”
Which means a Republican-controlled Congress in 2023 is more likely to spend its time reviewing the first two years of the Biden White House than pursuing anything new.
“The GOP has seemingly gone out of its way to offer no real policy agenda,” said Brian Riedl, a senior fellow for budget, tax and economics at the Manhattan Institute. “Republicans seem content to ride presidential unpopularity as far it will go, and then hope for a trifecta in 2025.”