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What Congress Accomplished And Didn't Accomplish In 2017


Republicans in Congress spent most of this past year fighting with one another over nearly every legislative priority. They struggled early on to rally conservatives behind the basic job of funding the government. They fought over immigration. They could not manage to make good on the one big promise of the past seven years - repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. Of course, they ended the year with a big win on the tax code. And as NPR's Kelsey Snell reports, Republicans hope voters will give them credit for it.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Republicans started 2017 with a long list of goals, and House Speaker Paul Ryan didn't waste any time making them clear. Here he is at a policy retreat held one week after President Trump took office.


PAUL RYAN: We've been working with the administration on a daily basis to map out and plan a very bold and aggressive agenda to make good on our campaign promises and to fix these problems, to repeal and replace and repair our broken healthcare system, to reform our tax code to get jobs and economic growth, to clear out the regulatory underbrush so we can get economic growth going.

SNELL: Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may have distanced themselves from candidate Trump, but by January they rallied around President Trump. And they got off to a roaring start. Republicans used their authority under the Congressional Review Act to kill more than a dozen Obama-era rules in just three months. And after a series of battles over President Obama's pick to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, the Senate vetted and confirmed conservative Neil Gorsuch as Trump's pick for a lifetime appointment to the nation's highest court.

Republicans had that opportunity thanks to years of prior standoffs with President Obama. That created a backlog of judicial openings and forced Democrats to enact many policies not through laws, but through executive orders. Michael Steel, an adviser to former House Speaker John Boehner, says Republicans made it their mission to reverse those policies from the moment they took office.

MICHAEL STEEL: President Obama's achievements after that first half of the first term were defined by his executive actions. And it's been a huge priority and a huge achievement of the Trump administration and congressional Republicans to roll back a lot of those.

SNELL: But when it came to new policies, the victories ground nearly to a halt while Republicans battled amongst themselves on a very public stage to fulfill their signature pledge to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. At the heart of the fight was a fear among moderates that low-income people could be seriously harmed if the ACA was repealed. In May, just over a hundred days after Trump took office, Ryan pulled the plug on a GOP repeal bill.


RYAN: Obamacare is the law of the land. It's going remain the law of the land until it's replaced. We did not have quite the votes to replace this law. And so, yeah, we're going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future.

SNELL: Republicans spent the next several months springing from hopeful negotiations to woeful disappointment. First, the House bill failed. Then it was resurrected. And then it passed only for the spectacle to replay again in the Senate. It all came to a head in a dramatic moment just before 1:30 in the morning on July 28, when a silent thumbs-down from Arizona Senator John McCain brought the Republican repeal quest to an end.


MITCH MCCONNELL: This is a disappointment, a disappointment indeed.

SNELL: That's Mitch McConnell following the failure of the Senate health care bill. Soon after, Republicans left Washington for a month to be received back home by angry voters and disappointed donors. When they returned in September, the only choice left was for the GOP to try to salvage the year from political disaster. What ensued was a mad dash to pass $1.5 trillion in tax cuts.

In roughly two and a half months, Republicans transformed a sparse framework of principles into a law, a law that permanently cut the top corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 percent and slashed individual tax rates for eight years. The sweeping tax bill also made good on decades of GOP priorities. It allowed drilling in a wildlife preserve in Alaska, and they did succeed in delivering a blow to the ACA by zeroing out the penalties under the individual mandate. Republicans celebrated the victory with President Trump on the White House lawn right before Christmas.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I have a whole list of accomplishments that the group behind me have done in terms of this administration and this Congress, but you've heard it before - records all over the place.

SNELL: In the end, Republicans finished like they started, with an important political victory that they hope voters will remember when they look back on 2017. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.