Victorious GOP vows to get Congress moving
Despite their new majority in the Senate and an expanded one in the House, Republicans face challenges, not the least of which are internal divisions. But they say they know they have to deliver or face a backlash in 2016.
The New York Times
Senate leadership switch
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., expects to win the Senate leadership election Nov. 13, which will be decided by the Republican senators who will serve in the 114th Congress beginning in January. But some restless Republicans are challenging his authority. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a potential presidential contender, refused to say in media interviews that he would back McConnell for the leadership post.
McClatchy Washington Bureau
Fresh from his own re-election victory and his party’s powerful showing nationwide, Sen. Mitch McConnell on Wednesday pledged to break the stalemate in Washington as newly empowered Congressional Republicans moved quickly to demonstrate that they can get things done.
“We’re going to pass legislation,” McConnell said at a news conference in Louisville, Ky. “This gridlock and dysfunction can be ended.”
Despite their new majority in the Senate and an expanded one in the House, Republicans face difficulties, not the least of which are internal divisions. But they say they know they have to deliver or face a backlash in 2016.
“I think it really becomes important to appear to want to be a governing party rather than a complaining party,” said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the GOP leadership. “My belief is we have about six months before the American people check that box one way or the other.”
Anticipating for months that they would take the Senate and pad their majority in the House, Republicans have been quietly discussing their agenda and approach after regularly accusing Democrats, led by Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, of thwarting their priorities.
They say they will focus on balancing the budget, restoring an orderly process for spending bills, revising if not repealing the health-care law and enacting a major overhaul of the tax code; ambitious goals, given years of stalemate and discord.
Before taking up immigration, Republicans are likely to see what unilateral action President Obama undertakes, and how the country reacts to it.
Senate Republicans also intend to use their control of committees to bring new scrutiny to the White House, federal agencies and Obama’s expanding use of executive authority.
McConnell, of Kentucky, who will succeed Reid as majority leader when the new Congress convenes in January, has also promised wholesale changes in the way the Senate operates, including a five-day workweek, more floor debate and empowered committee chairpersons.
Republicans say they intend to force Obama to make choices on bills that Senate Democrats have been able to keep from his desk, potentially touching off the president’s first extensive use of the veto after six years in office.
Some Democrats who have been frustrated by the stalemate in the Senate say they are open to cooperating with Republicans.
“Right now, we are helping destroy each other,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, a centrist Democrat from West Virginia. “I would like to think we can work together. I’d like to get my amendments in debate.”
In gaining control of the Senate, however, Republicans ousted some of the red-state Democrats most inclined to work with them, such as Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, reducing the number of potential Democratic allies. Other tensions may complicate their efforts. Top Republicans worry that the rank and file’s pent-up demand to directly confront Obama will be hard to manage.
McConnell, with few votes to spare, will have to balance the views of a handful of more moderate Republicans, such as Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, with those of unyielding conservatives such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
McConnell will also have to contend with the competing interests of Cruz and at least two other Republican senators expected to run for president — Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida — and those of senators up for re-election in 2016 in swing states such as Illinois, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
As for legislation, the party’s leaders in Congress are looking at five key priorities:
Approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada could be fertile ground for agreement with Democrats who have differed with the Obama administration on the issue. Combining the pipeline with new energy exports, expanded exploration and added efficiency could build a bipartisan consensus on energy policy.
McConnell said Keystone will be a top priority once the party takes control in January. “The Keystone pipeline will be voted on the floor of the Senate, something the current majority has been avoiding for literally years,” he said while on the campaign trail.
He reiterated his intentions Wednesday: “The employment figures connected with Keystone are stunning, if we would just get going.”
The Republican-controlled House already passed legislation to approve the pipeline and is expected to do so again, paving the way for Senate action.
Obama would risk blowback if he vetoed the Keystone approval. Polls show a significant majority of Americans support construction of the pipeline.
The Obama administration has delayed making a decision on the pipeline, most recently citing the need to wait for a Nebraska Supreme Court ruling on the route. A court decision is expected later this year. In the meantime the issue sits with Obama’s State Department, which needs to decide whether the pipeline is in the national interest because it crosses the border with Canada. A State Department environmental review downplayed the environmental effects of the pipeline.
Obama said at a Wednesday news conference that he wants to let the State Department finish its work evaluating the pipeline. He also said he wants to be assured that the project will really create jobs and contribute to the lowering of gasoline prices.
“And is it going to be, on net, something that doesn’t increase climate change that we’re going to have to grapple with?” Obama asked.
In advancing production-friendly energy policy, Republicans and their Democratic allies will have to overcome the strong opposition of environmental activists, who played a heightened role in this election and would be expected to be even more aggressive in 2016.
Budget and spending
Republican leaders in the House and Senate say that reaching a deal on a budget will be crucial to prove they can do it and to allow conservatives to put their imprint on a nonbinding fiscal plan.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, the conservative Alabama Republican who will lead the Budget Committee, has had his staff looking at federal spending for months in hopes of proposing a budget that would be balanced in as little as a decade. Despite wide sentiment among Republicans for cuts, a divide exists within the party.
Some Republicans would like to reverse a series of Pentagon spending constraints put in place through earlier budget deals with Democrats, arguing that the military is strained at a time it is being required to fight the continuing threat of extremist terrorism in the Middle East.
Sessions has expressed reservations about easing the spending limits on the Pentagon, and doing so would make balancing the budget harder and require even more to be cut from politically delicate social programs.
But reaching a budget deal is essential to putting in place a set of procedural shortcuts that would allow Republicans to force through changes in the health-care law and a tax package on a simple majority vote, avoiding the threat of a Democratic filibuster.
If they can enact a budget, Republicans hope to return to reviewing what have traditionally been 12 separate annual spending bills and reinvigorating a process that has all but collapsed by putting the bills on the floor and allowing senators to amend them. It can be a time-consuming and politically treacherous process.
In March, for the first time since Obama took office, Republicans will also have to find a way to pass an increase in the debt limit as the majority party, a difficult task given that the debt limit has become such a lightning rod for conservatives who object to any increase in federal borrowing power. McConnell suggested Wednesday that Republicans would address the debt limit in the budget.
Another test will come in May, when a temporary fix to the federal highway program expires, leaving Republicans to find a solution to a program that has been the subject of funding disputes.
A sweeping overhaul of the tax code is another priority for the new Senate majority, one that, at least in theory, has some Democratic support.
Much of the spadework has been done: at the Obama administration’s Treasury Department, the House Ways and Means Committee, which is likely to be led by Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and the Senate Finance Committee, which will now have Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, as its chairman.
Hatch will replace Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who is also a tax-overhaul advocate and could be instrumental in the debate. The key to a deal will be the Obama administration. The Treasury Department has developed a detailed plan to simplify the corporate tax code and lower the corporate tax rate to 28 percent from 35 percent.
Republicans want it closer to 25 percent and have repeatedly said any tax overhaul must include reductions in the individual tax rates, which apply to many small businesses. It looms as a difficult negotiation, but it is possible Obama could take a page from President Reagan, who worked with Democrats to pass the 1986 Tax Reform Act.
It is a delicate topic, but top Republicans acknowledge they cannot repeal the health-care law, particularly with Obama in office to veto any such effort. They will no doubt take some repeal votes, but their initial focus could be on smaller changes.
For instance, a medical-device tax used to pay for the law has met bipartisan opposition from lawmakers who represent manufacturers, and a repeal of the tax could pass Congress.
At the same time, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has also called for returning the health law’s definition of full-time work to 40 hours from 30, arguing that the lower limit is forcing too many people out of work because of employers’ efforts to comply with the law. Boehner singled out that measure as one that he would like to see advance.
This is one area where the Obama administration and Republicans should be able to find common ground.
Republicans are enthusiastic advocates of increased trade, and the president is eager to get the added authority to negotiate new trade deals and win approval of a trade agreement with nations on the Pacific Rim.
The main obstacle could be Democrats, many of whom are skeptical of trade deals that officials warn could cost U.S. jobs. But a significant segment of Democrats backs trade expansion, and a deal could probably be found if congressional Republicans and the Obama administration press for it.
Overall, those on both sides of the aisle agree that the change in Senate control presents a chance to curb the gridlock that has consumed Congress, but it also holds peril for Republicans if they fail to deliver.
“They have a golden opportunity,” Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat said. “If they get that and fail miserably, it is very bleak for them in 2016.”
Material from the McClatchy Washington Bureau is included in this report.