Six fights set to erupt in Congress
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Lawmakers will be facing several divisive policy fights when they return to Washington in January.

Republican leaders in both chambers will be put to the test as they seek to protect their vulnerable incumbents and put forward a legislative agenda that helps their party’s nominee win the White House.

The challenge will be particularly acute for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat McConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Brent Budowsky: A plea to Alabama voters MORE (R-Ky.), who is trying to protect his 54-seat majority on an election year map that favors Democrats.

Here are six big fights awaiting lawmakers in the New Year.


The Senate is headed toward round two in the battle over refugees after conservatives voiced frustrated that the issue wasn’t addressed in the year-end spending bill.

Republican lawmakers have called for blocking President Obama’s plan to resettle up to 10,000 Syrian refugees, fearing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) could use the program to slip fighters into the United States.

McConnell has pledged to take up legislation dealing with the refugee acceptance program during the first quarter of 2016, though it’s unclear what the proposal will contain.

The GOP leader has already put a House-passed bill on the Senate calendar that would restrict Syrian and Iraqi refugees, meaning it could come up for a vote.

But the House bill has received fierce pushback from Senate Democrats.

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocrats turn on Al Franken Minnesota's largest newspaper calls on Franken to resign Democratic senator predicts Franken will resign Thursday MORE (Ill.), the Democratic whip, suggested that the “fevered pitch” that surrounded the bill when it passed in November has subsided.

“It doesn’t stand up to reason that we’re focusing on 70,000 people that are vetted for two years,” Durbin said.

While Durbin said he hasn’t done an official vote count, he thinks Senate Democrats would be able to block the refugee bill from getting the 60 votes needed to move forward.

Guantanamo Bay and ISIS

With Obama heading into his final year in the White House, lawmakers are poised to review two of his foreign policy priorities: fighting ISIS and closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees House Republican: 'I worry about both sides' of the aisle on DACA Overnight Health Care: 3.6M signed up for ObamaCare in first month | Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' next year | Dems push for more money to fight opioids MORE (R-Wis.) suggested before Christmas that Congress could take a second look at passing a war powers resolution against ISIS. Taking that step, Ryan said, “would be a good sign for American foreign policy.” 

Obama says he already has the legal authority to fight ISIS but has pushed Congress for an explicit authorization that would update the language passed after the 9/11 attacks.

While both parties have expressed support for an ISIS resolution, no one has put forward a proposal that has been able to overcome the deep divisions on the war.

Separately, a battle is brewing between congressional Republicans and the Obama administration on closing Guantanamo Bay.

The administration is preparing a plan to close the prison camp, but Republicans say it is effectively dead on arrival.

To underscore their stance, Republicans have sent multiple bills to the president’s desk — including an end-of-the-year spending bill — that would block the administration from moving the detainees to any prison in the United States.

The White House hasn’t ruled out using executive actions to close the facility, though legal experts and congressional Republicans say Obama would be on shaky legal ground.

“We will wait until Congress has definitively said no to a well-thought-out plan with numbers attached to it before we say anything definitive about my executive authority here,” Obama told reporters during an end-of-the-year press conference.

Gun control

Democrats are pushing new gun control legislation following a string of mass shootings in 2015.

Senate Democrats are pledging to force a vote on several gun control proposals, including expanding background checks and closing the gun-show loophole.

“One thing that we have all agreed on, the four of us, we're going to do something more on guns. We're not going to be silent on that,” Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidBill O'Reilly: Politics helped kill Kate Steinle, Zarate just pulled the trigger Tax reform is nightmare Déjà vu for Puerto Rico Ex-Obama and Reid staffers: McConnell would pretend to be busy to avoid meeting with Obama MORE (D-Nev.) told reporters in December.

But any attempt to tighten gun laws is almost certain to fail in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Asked about Democratic efforts, McConnell said there’s “bipartisan resistance” to “the kinds of measures they typically advocate on that issue.”

Before the holiday recess, Senate Republicans thwarted a proposal from Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Blumenthal: ‘Credible case' of obstruction of justice can be made against Trump MORE (D-Calif.) that would allow the attorney general to block a gun sale if there were reason to believe the weapon will be used in an act of terrorism. 

Republicans rallied around an alternative from Sen. John CornynJohn CornynMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Air Force makes criminal reporting changes after Texas massacre We need a better pathway for allowing civilians to move guns across state lines MORE (R-Texas) that would allow the government to delay a gun sale for up to 72 hours while it seeks a court order.

Meanwhile, Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulLexington mayor launches bid for Congress Trump-free Kennedy Center Honors avoids politics Meet the Iran hawk who could be Trump's next secretary of State MORE (R-Ky.) is pushing for a vote on legislation to curb Obama’s ability to enact new gun policies through executive action.

The legislation would make any regulation that either infringes upon congressional authority or potentially violates the Second Amendment as "advisory only" until legislation that supported the action is passed by Congress.

Democrats will likely block Paul’s legislation if it is scheduled for a vote.

Criminal justice reform

Supporters of a bipartisan Senate proposal to overhaul the criminal justice system are hopeful that the legislation can reach the floor in early 2016.

"Several of us … made a pitch to [McConnell] that if he wants a good bipartisan bill that the president will sign, that's a good candidate," Cornyn told reporters earlier this year.  

The Obama administration has sought to keep momentum behind the issue, including meeting with House and Senate lawmakers to discuss the proposals put forward.

Senate Democrats have raised concerns over provisions in one of the House bills that they argue would make it harder to sue corporations. Meanwhile, conservative Republicans are signaling early pushback against the Senate legislation.

Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat House passes concealed carry gun bill Rosenstein to testify before House Judiciary Committee next week MORE (R-Ala.) told Talking Points Memo that the reform bill “needs more work.”

“I think it needs to be connected with the reality of criminal justice and crime in America," Sessions said. "I would not favor bringing it up and just zipping it through.”

Sessions, as well as presidential candidate Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzDebbie Wasserman Schultz marks 10 years as breast cancer survivor Foreign agent registration is no magical shield against Russian propaganda Let Trump be Trump and he'll sail through 2020 MORE (R-Texas), Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Utah governor calls Bannon a 'bigot' after attacks on Romney MORE (R-Utah), David VitterDavid VitterThe Senate 'ethics' committee is a black hole where allegations die Questions loom over Franken ethics probe You're fired! Why it's time to ditch the Fed's community banker seat MORE (R-La.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) voted against the criminal justice reform bill on the Judiciary Committee.

McConnell has remained tightlipped about if, or when, he will bring the legislation up for a vote, stressing that his focus is passage of the 12 individual appropriations bills.


Congressional leaders are pledging to restore regular order in 2016, meaning that both chambers would pass 12 individual spending bills and then work out their differences in conference.

"The Speaker and I had a number of conversations. He wants to do appropriations bills. I want to do appropriations bills, and there's no reason we can't," Reid told reporters earlier this month.

McConnell backed Reid’s statement.

“Amen. Help us do it, and we'll do it," he said.

Still, Democrats are keeping their options open, saying they won’t allow spending bills to skip over procedural votes.

Reid is already sending early warning signals. In a statement included in the Congressional Record, the Nevada Democrat warned Republicans against including “poison pill riders” that he said “would grind the process to a halt.”