The GOP blew it in 2017. And 2018 may be even tougher.

Republicans in Congress face a daunting legislative calendar and an increasingly hostile environment in 2018

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. Mitch McConnell.
(Image credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Republicans in Congress face a daunting legislative calendar and an increasingly hostile environment in 2018.

2017 was a notoriously difficult year for the GOP, which struggled to pass much of anything beyond its sweeping, last-minute tax reform package. But even that was a rare victory at the end of a long string of failures. Still, 2018 looks much more daunting, filled as it is with issues that will require Democratic cooperation.

The GOP has not yet offered much reason for Democrats to engage, and Democrats have appeared much more interested in "resistance" posing than in cooperation with the GOP and Trump administration. Their House rank and file are still agitating for impeachment, and the battle over judicial nominations has Senate Democrats looking for ways to slow down everything in the upper chamber. The prospects for productive engagement do not look promising, to say the least.

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But this is precisely how majority parties get judged: on their ability to govern effectively. And the most basic exercise in governance is budgeting, a process that has been derailed in the split-power years since the 2010 midterms.

The budget process has been dysfunctional for the last several years as both sides have lost their taste for compromise. Brinksmanship drives fundraising for both sides, but it kneecaps governance and leads to massive and incomprehensible omnibus spending bills, rushed at the last minute to avoid shutdowns. That process has resulted in short-term thinking rather than responsible long-term planning.

Republicans undoubtedly want to trim the budget and force the federal government to tighten its belt. Indeed, reduced spending has long been a Republican priority. Thanks to their decision to postpone the budget fight with Democrats, they face a potential shutdown in two weeks if differences on spending priorities for the rest of the FY2018 budget don't get resolved. Even if the two parties agree to kick the can down the road for a few more weeks — the most likely outcome in January — the issues will have to get resolved at some point in the next few months.

How will that happen?

Much will depend on whether both parties can agree to undo or ease the spending caps of the 2011 budget agreement while still reducing overall spending, in order to get the tradeoffs each side needs. Democrats want to reauthorize children's health insurance spending for the long term without pay-fors demanded by Republicans, but House Republicans especially want to show reduced spending to fulfill their campaign promises.

To succeed at this, however, Republicans will have to learn how to organize themselves better than they did for either the failed ObamaCare repeal or successful tax reform efforts. Despite being long-time promises, Republicans had no apparent plan in place for either prior to opening debate in Congress. Various factions of the party fought with each other in the open rather than working together upfront to settle differences. The fractures allowed Democrats to score public-relations points on the GOP, resulting in having ObamaCare become more popular than ever and tax cuts suddenly becoming a political liability. Much of that damage could have been avoided with a coordinated, organized effort that left the bickering in the cloakroom.

That option may already be moot, thanks to the need to resort to continuing resolutions for FY2018, and a continuation of the status quo for the current budget may be the best Republicans can do. They have a much bigger opportunity for the FY2019 budget, a process that would normally begin in late March or early April. Their best bet for presenting themselves as a responsible governing party before the midterms would be to focus on that budget and to hew closely to the middle-America issues that gave them the White House in 2016.

Conservatives want Congress to restructure entitlements, a long-overdue process, but neither the country nor the opposition are ready for it. Republicans first need to build credibility by demonstrating the ability to handle the annual budget responsibly, especially since Democrats will paint the GOP as heartless for trimming Medicare and Social Security in order to save both from financial collapse. It will take at least one budget cycle before voters will trust Republicans to completely overhaul their retirement programs — and besides, there is no chance at all to get 60 Senate votes in 2018 for entitlement reform.

Gaining credibility as a governing party will take time and patience. Republicans largely squandered both in 2017. They would be wise to make effective governing their New Year's resolution.

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