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The success Republicans had this week in passing tax cuts has encouraged many of them to look at reducing federal spending. House Speaker Paul Ryan wants to overhaul social welfare programs. His push is dividing Republicans who are worried about doing that in an election year and uniting the Democrats in opposition. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis has more about the debate over the 2018 agenda.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: House Speaker Paul Ryan says that passage of a $1.5 trillion tax cut only addresses one side of the nation's long-term economic concerns.
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PAUL RYAN: I've long said there are two things you got to do to get this debt under control. Reform the entitlement programs, which are on autopilot. Grow the economy.
DAVIS: Republicans believe their tax bill will deliver on that economic growth. So the speaker is trying to make the case that the party should shift focus to the other end of the debt equation, entitlement programs, specifically on social welfare programs like unemployment benefits, food stamps and Medicaid.
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RYAN: And the great thing about tax reform coming right now is we're going to be able to create the kind of an economy that produces good family-supporting jobs, higher wages that will be there for people who are stuck in poverty and welfare to go to.
DAVIS: House Republicans like Oklahoma Congressman Tom Cole are with the speaker. He's a former congressional campaign chairman. But he says Republicans shouldn't let election year concerns overwhelm the rare alignment of a Republican-controlled Washington.
TOM COLE: The winds are going to be blowing against us regardless. It's foolish to think that - nobody's had a good midterm around here since 2002. The really important thing is to remember we have the House. We have the Senate. We have the presidency. That doesn't happen very often. When you got it, use it.
DAVIS: More moderate House Republicans like New Jersey Congressman Tom MacArthur aren't as confident. He's concerned that moving legislation affecting entitlements could ensnare other hugely popular programs like Medicare and Social Security, the so-called third rail of American politics because politicians who try to touch them get fried.
TOM MACARTHUR: I think if we're talking about encouraging people that are able-bodied to get back to work or to train to go to work, sure, I support that. If we're talking about breaking promises and breaking faith with people, that's a different matter altogether.
DAVIS: Across the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell does not share the speaker's enthusiasm for spending 2018 in a debate over welfare programs. He also doesn't support Ryan's push to use special budget rules so they could again pass legislation without any Democratic support. That's the way Republicans passed the tax cut bill.
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MITCH MCCONNELL: I think entitlement changes, to be sustained, almost always have to be bipartisan. And I don't think that doing, you know, one-party-only entitlement changes is something I'm interested in doing. The House may have a different agenda.
DAVIS: The chances of Democrats getting onboard are practically nonexistent. There's lingering distrust over the partisan health care and tax battles of 2017. Democrats like New Jersey Congressman Bill Pascrell say Speaker Ryan wants to cut programs that help the neediest Americans to mitigate the effects of a tax bill that permanently cuts $1 trillion in taxes for corporations.
BILL PASCRELL: He wants to cut these programs, all of them one by one. Entitlement reform, it's called. No, it really is cutting Medicare, Medicaid - regardless of how you slice it - and Social Security.
DAVIS: He says that means Democrats are preparing for conflict next year, not compromise.
PASCRELL: Damn right. You're damn right. It's the season to be merry and ready.
DAVIS: For their part, congressional Republicans will decide on their 2018 agenda at their annual retreat in late January. Susan Davis, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.