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Washington Matters

Trump's Agenda and Challenges

What lies ahead for the President-Elect.

Photo courtesy of Michael Vadon via Wikimedia Commons

Now comes the hard part for Donald Trump – turning the rhetoric of one of the most divisive campaigns in decades into the reality of governing.

When Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States on Jan. 20, 2017, Republicans will hold power in the House and have narrow control of the Senate. In normal circumstances, that’s a huge advantage when it comes to implementing an agenda. But these might not be normal circumstances.

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Not only does the nation need to heal from the brutal race, but a divided Republican Party must find a way to come together, and quickly. Trump will face internal opposition to some of his early efforts, especially if he maintains his strong campaign positions against international trade agreements, cooperating with Russia and taking a hard line against illegal immigrants and Muslims.

Many Republican members of Congress have to run again in two years and will proceed with caution.

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The Senate’s procedural rules will serve as a brake on some of his efforts, as well. It takes 60 votes to move most measures through the body, and with only 51 Republicans, some Democrats will have to vote with them to pass legislation.

The Senate can change the rules to allow a simple majority to move bills, but don’t expect the GOP majority to push for that change in general. Veterans of the chamber know the tide will shift at some point and the Democrats will be back in power so they’ll be slow to do anything that would make it tougher to be in the minority down the road.

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There is one possible exception: Trump’s nominations to the Supreme Court.

One of his first moves in the Oval Office will be to propose a replacement for conservative lion Antonin Scalia, which would restore the Court’s 5-4 conservative majority. If there’s any foot-dragging by Democrats, the way Republicans did on President Obama’s nomination to Scalia’s seat on the bench early this year, GOP leaders will quickly push for a majority vote.

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It’s fair to ask whether one appointment will make much of a difference, and it’s reasonable to suggest that it might not. The key, as it was when Scalia was alive, will be Justice Anthony Kennedy. He’s a conservative, but as a fan of individual rights, he has sided with the Court’s liberal wing and given them notable victories on same-sex marriage, affirmative action and abortion. Other vacancies might be forthcoming – several justices are in or approaching their 80s, but for now just one seat is in play.

Trump won’t be the first leader of the free world to arrive in Washington as an outsider. In 1976, after the stain of Watergate, Jimmy Carter blazed such a trail to the nation’s capital set on changing the ways of Washington. Almost from the start, he butted heads with a fellow Democrat, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, accomplished little and ended up a one-term president. It’s much too soon to forecast much about Trump’s tenure than this: Given his rocky relationship with House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republicans, and minority Democrats looking for ways to be relevant, the new president is likely to have a bumpy start.

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Besides quick action on a new Supreme Court nominee, Trump is likely to move fast on other key issues that include:

Tax reform. There’s a good chance for a broad tax reform deal, featuring across-the-board tax cuts, if such legislation can be moved through the Senate via the reconciliation process, which allows Congress to bypass procedural hurdles. Odds appear favorable to such an approach.

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Illegal immigration. Trump will take immediate steps to suspend immigration from Syria, pending more controls. Other action on stemming immigration will need cooperation from Congress; moderate Republicans there will take a cautious approach. But if Congress balks, look for Trump to take executive action. As for Trump’s plan to build a wall along the border between the U.S. and Mexico, it will run into opposition in Congress. Moreover, such a wall would have to traverse private lands, tribal lands as well as public property—a significant hurdle. But chances are good for additional spending to go for more electronic surveillance along the border.

Health care. Trump’s election virtually assures major changes to the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Likely targets for elimination include the requirement that individuals buy health insurance and that employers with 50 or more workers offer it. Look for the GOP to work toward allowing insurers to sell across state lines. Republicans are also likely to create a federal high-risk insurance pool for people who are ill and unable to get private insurance, and to give block grants to states for Medicaid. Certain popular provisions in Obamacare would be retained, such as allowing kids to stay on their parents’ health plans until age 26 and guaranteeing coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions.

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Financial reform. Trump has criticized the Dodd-Frank Act for suppressing economic growth and stopping banks from giving loans and supporting businesses. Look for the next administration and GOP Congress to tweak financial regulations to favor Republican objectives, such as helping small banks and deregulating certain types of businesses for big banks.

Infrastructure. Trump will throw his weight behind overhauling public works funding, aiming to fulfill his campaign promise to infuse nearly $1 trillion into upgrading the nation’s roads, bridges, railways, tunnels, seaports, airports, electric grid, water systems and communications services. The move will benefit scores of construction companies and their subcontractors.

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Trade. There’s little chance of ditching the North American Free Trade Agreement, though some modifications are a good bet. NAFTA benefits many U.S. exporters who have built deeply intertwined networks with trading partners in Canada and Mexico. The president-elect will also focus heavily on keeping U.S. manufacturing jobs from being shifted abroad.

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