Congress

Here comes the GOP Congress

The U.S. Capitol dome awaits the new legislators
The U.S. Capitol dome awaits the new legislators McClatchy

The new Republican-run Congress convenes Tuesday eager to pursue a dream the party’s been chasing for six years: Dilute, dismantle or defang key Obama administration policies on immigration, environment, health care and more.

First up this month will be approving the Keystone XL pipeline that Obama’s been reluctant to back. Next on the agenda: Trying to overturn his November action easing deportation policies for millions of undocumented immigrants.

There’s lots more. Many Republicans plan to grill and possibly stall Obama’s defense secretary and attorney general nominees, try to block the president’s new Cuba policy and chip away at the 2010 health care law.

Republicans start the year with a lot of muscle. The party will control 247 of the 435 House of Representatives seats, the biggest Republican bloc in 84 years. The party will have 54 of the Senate’s 100 seats.

That means they’ll control every aspect of congressional activity: topics for committee hearings, the Senate and House floor schedules and who can amend bills.

Democrats have three avenues of influence. Senate legislation usually needs 60 votes to stay afloat, meaning Republicans would need some Democratic votes. An Obama veto still would need two-thirds majorities in each chamber to be overturned. And Republicans are still prone to intraparty warfare between conservatives and more pragmatic lawmakers.

Republicans also have a more difficult mission: restoring public trust. The Congress that left last month was one of the least productive in modern times. Congressional approval ratings are mired around 15 percent.

Republicans point to some areas where they can work with the White House, notably on overhauling the tax code and trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific partnership, which would remove barriers to trade in that region. But Republicans’ top targets are Obama administration actions. Among them:

– Keystone. The pipeline, which would stretch from western Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast, will come up quickly in the Senate.

The debate will provide clues for what’s ahead on other topics. Can Republicans succeed in defying Obama? Will the Keystone bill become a vehicle for other energy-related Republican initiatives? Will foes rally and energize Democrats who are opposed, giving them momentum for other battles?

– Immigration. Big fight No. 2. Obama is scheduled to deliver his State of the Union address to a joint session Jan. 20, and shortly afterward, the immigration war will rage. Many Republicans remain livid that Obama in November announced actions that could protect about 5 million people, mostly children and parents, from deportation.

Opponents’ immediate focus will be the Homeland Security Department budget. The department, which includes Immigration and Customs Enforcement, runs out of money Feb. 27.

That could mean a partisan standoff featuring threats to shutter the agency. Many Republicans balk at that idea, hardly wanting to close a department charged with protecting the country against terrorism. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky won’t discuss strategy.

– Nominees. Confirmation hearings are likely early this year for two top-level Obama nominees, Ashton Carter for defense secretary and Loretta Lynch for attorney general.

Some Republicans have vowed to use Obama’s immigration policy to give Lynch a rough time, though she is expected to eventually win confirmation.

“The attorney general is one of the linchpins to Obama’s amnesty plan, and I’ll be working to get the new Congress to block this nomination,” said Sen. David Vitter, R-La.

Carter should have a smoother path. Incoming Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said the nominee is qualified, though he warned Carter would “likely have limited influence over the tight circle around the president who apparently control the entire strategic decision-making process.”

Democrats in 2013 changed Senate rules so that it took only a simple majority, rather than 60, to limit debate on most nominees. Republicans have not said whether they’ll retain the majority rule.

– Cuba. Republicans have discussed several ways to block Obama’s Dec. 17 decision to ease diplomatic relations with Cuba, including denying funding for a new embassy or refusing to confirm an ambassador.

It’s unclear how much support those steps could get. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is adamantly against any opening. He’s a respected voice on Cuba, and McConnell told McClatchy he’ll support Rubio.

Other Republicans are less likely to do so. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona was among those on the plane Dec. 17 that brought imprisoned American Alan Gross home to the United States, and Flake cheered the new opening toward Cuba. So does Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

– Health care. Republicans have despised the law since it was approved nearly five years ago. They want repeal, but that’s impossible as long as Obama remains in office.

What’s more likely this year are piecemeal attempts to change it. A prime candidate is repeal of the 2.3 percent medical device tax, which would gain bipartisan support. The House passed a repeal measure last year, but it went nowhere in the Senate.

McConnell suggested he was not preparing for a year of showdowns. While he criticized Obama for acting on immigration and Cuba without congressional consent, he said they could work together on overhauling the nations’ tax code, trade agreements and infrastructure initiatives.

He stopped short, though, of calling 2015 the beginning of a new era of cooperation. “That will be up to him,” McConnell said of Obama. “The president is uniquely powerful.”

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