Trump’s Top Priority for 2018: Infrastructure or Welfare Reform?

Trump’s Top Priority for 2018: Infrastructure or Welfare Reform?

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Trump’s Top Priority for 2018: Infrastructure or Welfare Reform?

The White House has yet to finalize its top priorities for 2018, according to reports, but the administration would like to pursue infrastructure, “welfare reform,” or both.

Either path would entail political risks. “What you need for infrastructure is new money, and I don’t see where they’re going to get it,” Sen. Mark Warner said Thursday at an event sponsored by Axios. And conservatives may balk at increased spending.

Welfare or entitlement reform won’t attract Democratic support, and could spark a fervent backlash along the lines seen earlier this year when Republicans sought to repeal and replace Obamacare.

President Trump seemed to indicate Friday that infrastructure could come first. “At some point, and for the good of the country, I predict we will start working with the Democrats in a Bipartisan fashion. Infrastructure would be a perfect place to start. After having foolishly spent $7 trillion in the Middle East, it is time to start rebuilding our country!” Trump tweeted Friday morning.

On entitlement reform, Trump promised during his election campaign that he would not touch Social Security or Medicare, and he has reportedly told multiple Republican members of Congress that entitlements are off the table in his first term. But the White House’s 2018 budget proposed sharp cuts to food stamps, Medicaid payments, Social Security disability benefits and other programs for the poor. A welfare reform push in 2018 would likely focus more narrowly on such efforts rather than pursue the broader changes to the social safety net that House Speaker Paul Ryan has long sought.

McConnell vs. Ryan

Ryan earlier this month said on a radio talk show that “we’re going to have to get back to entitlement reform” in 2018. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell yesterday shot down the idea of tackling welfare and entitlement reform in 2018, telling Axios that he preferred to focus on an issue like infrastructure that could draw Democratic support.

The president will reportedly meet with McConnell and Ryan early next year “to make sure everyone is on the same page.”

McConnell, who will lead a slim 51-seat majority in the Senate starting next year, expanded on his thinking in comments to The Washington Post: “I don’t think, as a practical matter in the Senate, we can do entitlement reform without bipartisan agreement,” he said. “And you can fill in the blanks. I mean, it applies to entitlements in general — Medicare, Social Security, welfare — they’re so doubled down on that, I’m not going to devote floor time to something that has no Democratic support.”

He’s not the only Republican who has concerns about moving on to welfare or entitlement reform. “I think the optics are terrible,” John McKager “Mac” Stipanovich, a GOP consultant, tells the Post. “At least at this point, the Democrats are winning the argument that the tax cuts primarily benefit the wealthy and big business. To come in right behind that and start whacking the poor, the working poor, will not serve Republicans well in 2018.”

Democrats are already gearing up for that fight — and likely relishing the political opportunity it presents. “Compromising programs like Medicare and Social Security – that Americans have paid into and earned through years of hard work – is irresponsible, especially after forcing through legislation that increases the deficit by $1.5 trillion,” Democrats on the House Ways and means Committee tweeted yesterday.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Democrats would fight against changes to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. "Social Security is in reasonable shape until at least 2030-something," she said Thursday. "But nonetheless, we want that to be even longer and these are issues that can be talked about separately. But we will fight to defend them because they are about the health and economic security of America’s working families and we will not use Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security as an ATM machine for the Republicans to give tax breaks to their wealthy friends and corporate America."