Six fights set to erupt in Congress


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 McConnellMitch McConnellDems leery of Planned Parenthood cuts spark Senate scuffle Overnight Finance: Senate sends Puerto Rico bill to Obama | Treasury, lawmakers to meet on tax rules | Obama hits Trump on NAFTA | Fed approves most banks' capital plans Senate passes Puerto Rico debt relief bill 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 DurbinDick DurbinClinton ally stands between Sanders and chairmanship dream Reid backs House Puerto Rico bill McConnell pledges redo vote on Zika after break 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 RyanOvernight Finance: Senate sends Puerto Rico bill to Obama | Treasury, lawmakers to meet on tax rules | Obama hits Trump on NAFTA | Fed approves most banks' capital plans The Trail 2016: When a pivot isn’t always a pivot Kasich touts poll showing he does better against Clinton than Trump 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 ReidDems leery of Planned Parenthood cuts spark Senate scuffle Overnight Finance: Senate sends Puerto Rico bill to Obama | Treasury, lawmakers to meet on tax rules | Obama hits Trump on NAFTA | Fed approves most banks' capital plans Senate passes Puerto Rico debt relief bill 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 FeinsteinHomeland Security Committee pushes encryption commission in new report Clinton ally stands between Sanders and chairmanship dream Clinton endorses Warner-McCaul encryption commission 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 CornynOvernight Finance: Trump threatens NAFTA withdrawal | Senate poised for crucial Puerto Rico vote | Ryan calls for UK trade deal | Senate Dems block Zika funding deal Senate faces critical vote on Puerto Rico McConnell tees up House Puerto Rico bill 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 PaulRand PaulTrump: Rivals who don't back me shouldn't be allowed to run for office Trump hires Rand Paul's former digital director: report Trump flexes new digital muscle 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 SessionsJeff SessionsTrump hopes for boost from Brexit vote GOP senators: Brexit vote a wake-up call Sessions warns of 'radical' Clinton immigration policy 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 CruzTed CruzTrump: Rivals who don't back me shouldn't be allowed to run for office Kasich touts poll showing he does better against Clinton than Trump Two transgender candidates win primaries MORE (R-Texas), Orrin HatchOrrin HatchTreasury officials to meet with lawmakers on inversion rules A bipartisan bright spot we can’t afford to pass up: child welfare reform Medicare trust fund running out of money fast MORE (R-Utah), David VitterDavid VitterFed chairwoman blasts Trump on debt Senate campaign posts private conversation on Facebook Rand Paul endorses in La. Senate race 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.” 

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