Will GOP Congressional Victories Deliver Positive Results for Catholics?
With Republicans in control of both Congress and the White House, pro-life legislation should advance, but concerns exist about immigration and health care coverage.
WASHINGTON — With the Republican Party keeping control of both chambers of Congress and surprising most political pundits by winning the White House, several observers say the Election 2016 results will translate into positive action on many issues important to Catholics.
When it convenes on Jan. 3, 2017, the 115th Congress in the ensuing months could pass legislation to defund Planned Parenthood of its federal tax dollars, codify the Hyde Amendment, confirm a pro-life justice to the U.S. Supreme Court and pass a bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks post-fertilization.
“We are within reach, but we have our work cut out for us to hold President-elect Trump and our elected leaders accountable,” said Lila Rose, president of Live Action, a pro-life organization that investigates the abortion industry.
“We now have the opportunity to see a president of the United States appoint justices who respect the Constitution instead of trying to write law and ignore the Constitution, which will be very good news for babies, for marriage and for anything that impacts us on the judicial level,” said Judie Brown, president of American Life League, a national Catholic pro-life organization.
But the next Congress could also take action on issues that other Catholic commenters worry could harm vulnerable populations, such as migrants who are in the United States without legal documents and Americans who need health insurance coverage.
“Positive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship is likely dead, and we will likely see enforcement-only bills being passed or moved through Congress,” said Kevin Appleby, senior director of International Migration Policy for the Center for Migration Studies, a pro-immigration think tank.
In the days following the Nov. 8 election, analysts such as Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, who co-chaired Catholics for Obama in 2012, expressed concern that Trump would carry through on a campaign promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
But Trump has said he is open to keeping some provisions in place, such as requiring insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing health conditions and to allow young adults to remain on their parents’ plans.
The Contraceptive Mandate
Amending or repealing the Affordable Care Act — commonly known as Obamacare — would also likely mean that insurance companies would no longer be required to provide contraceptive coverage that many Catholic nonprofit organizations see as an infringement on their religious liberty.
“Given that Republicans control the White House and Congress, the HHS contraceptive mandate might very well be repealed,” said Vincent Muñoz, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame.
Trump’s incoming administration would not need congressional support to alter or repeal the contraceptive mandate, which has been the subject of dozens of lawsuits in the federal courts.
“With the stroke of a pen, President Trump can get rid of the HHS mandate, and the Little Sisters of the Poor won’t have to petition the Supreme Court any longer,” said Joshua Mercer, political director of CatholicVote.org.
But the health care law itself will probably be a different story, according to analysts.
“Repealing and replacing Obamacare will be much more difficult because of the enormous complexity of the legislation, the vested interests of health care companies and, of course, the real medical needs of those individuals who now depend on the health care the law helps provide,” Muñoz said.
In separate press conferences the day after the election, House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky both cited repeal of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law as a top priority for the next legislative session.
Ryan said the law — which provides coverage for about 20 million people — is collapsing under its own weight.
The Republican-controlled Congress during the Obama years voted dozens of times to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a measure that was dead on arrival whenever it reached the president’s desk. But next year will be different with Donald Trump in the Oval Office.
With repeal or overhaul now a distinct possibility, the process could be dragged out by months of hearings and debate on Capitol Hill, not to mention the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering involving a cadre of lobbyists for insurance companies and other interests that will want a say in crafting any new legislation. And with Democrats in the minority, analysts believe congressional Republicans will finally get their chance to dismantle Obama’s signature legislative achievement.
“The votes will definitely be there for better health care reform in 2017,” Mercer said.
Mercer told the Register that since Obamacare is “more than 95% budgetary,” the Republican leadership in the Senate could repeal the law through reconciliation, a parliamentary procedure for budget bills that limits debate to 20 hours and eliminates the possibility of a filibuster by Senate Democrats.
“There will definitely be an early priority to repeal and replace Obamacare with something that makes sense and does not include federal funding for abortion,” said Deal Hudson, publisher and editor of The Christian Review and the former director of Catholic outreach for the Republican National Committee under President George W. Bush.
On the issue of abortion, several pro-life leaders are hopeful that Trump and the incoming Congress will approve pro-life justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, end late-term abortions, strip Planned Parenthood of more than $500 million in federal funding and codify the Hyde Amendment — an annual budgetary provision that prohibits federal tax dollars to cover abortions — into permanent law.
And the issue of abortion and Trump’s promise to promote pro-life Supreme Court justices was a major reason for his support among Catholics.
“We need to hold our elected leaders accountable to make sure we accomplish this,” said Rose, who noted that Congress passed a bill in January to defund Planned Parenthood, which was vetoed by President Obama. Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a measure to restrict abortions to no later than 20 weeks after conception, but the bill died in the Senate.
There are some questions, though, as to how willing the slight Republican 52-seat majority in the Senate will be to take action on some of those abortion measures. Hudson said he believes defunding Planned Parenthood is a “definite possibility,” but not a certainty, given that a handful of Republican senators are sympathetic to the abortion-rights cause.
“The Democrats might not even have to filibuster a defunding bill,” Hudson said.
Muñoz agreed that the pro-life agenda is “by no means a done deal,” given that the Republican majority in the Senate is “razor thin.”
“And, of course, preventing pro-life judges from reaching the Supreme Court will be a top priority of Senate Democrats,” Muñoz said.
Mercer agreed that defunding Planned Parenthood will have a tougher fight in the Senate, though he still expects the measure to pass.
Immigration and Religious Liberty
Mercer added that religious-liberty legislation such as the First Amendment Defense Act would also face resistance in the Senate because the Republicans do not have the required 60 seats to break a filibuster.
“Any religious-liberty legislation will be fought by the Democrats tooth and nail,” Mercer said.
On the campaign trail, Trump promised stricter enforcement of immigration laws and deportations of millions of migrants who are in the United States illegally. Schneck said he believes Congress will facilitate Trump’s immigration agenda.
“Likewise, Congress will support Trump’s call to build a wall across our southern border to block access from Mexico and Central America,” Schneck said. “Similarly, the GOP-controlled Congress will strongly support Trump’s plan for repressive surveillance of Muslims in America and Trump’s plan to halt most Muslim immigration to the United States.”
Speaker Ryan told CNN that neither Congress nor Trump are planning to create a “deportation force,” though he added that border security will be a priority. Trump told CBS’ 60 Minutes on Nov. 13 that deporting illegal criminals will be his first priority. Appleby, who previously worked on immigration issues for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, suggested that Trump does not have a mandate for a crackdown on immigration, given the close results of the election.
“There are barriers in the system that prevent a president, especially without congressional support, from doing what he wants on an issue,” Appleby said, adding that Trump “is still going to have to build some consensus, in some cases, to get some bipartisan support for some of his more draconian proposals.”
On the economy, Congress may go along with some of Trump’s proposals, such as tax reform, but resist his calls for restricting trade with China and other countries, which analysts say would mean higher prices on imports and could spark a trade war.
“Republican leaders in Congress may well balk at that,” Schneck said, adding that Trump’s plans for building a large border wall, investing in infrastructure and increasing military spending, all without raising significant new taxes, would require Congress to raise the national debt.
McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has said comprehensive tax reform is on the congressional agenda, but he threw cold water on Trump’s infrastructure investment plans, saying they will not be a top priority for the new Congress.
But Congress could still align with Trump’s skepticism on free trade, said Mercer, noting that the president-elect and the Republican Party by extension benefited greatly from working-class voters, many of them Catholics, in Rust Belt states that have been hit hard by the loss of manufacturing jobs.
“The Republican Party was listening to the concerns of working Catholics and working-class voters in the Midwest,” Mercer said.
Those economic concerns, coupled with the Republicans’ position on the life issues, could explain not only why Trump won a majority of voters who self-identify as Catholics, but also why he outperformed expectations among Hispanic and black voters, despite concerns about Trump’s campaign rhetoric.
“I think they saw through that, and they saw a man who creates jobs and who also is beloved by all these people who work for him wherever he goes,” Hudson said.
Trump’s electoral coattails helped the GOP maintain its congressional control and may have helped Republicans in close races, such as Sens. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and Roy Blunt in Missouri.
Mercer said election analysts will need to closely study the results for lessons moving forward. He added that Catholic voters will also have to keep a close eye on their elected leaders.
Said Mercer, “It’s incumbent upon us to make sure Donald Trump stays true to his promises. That’s going to be priority No. 1 for Catholic voters, for sure.”
Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.