Congress returns for post-election battle

The players are the same, but it’s a whole new political world when Congress returns Wednesday to a Capitol turned upside down by last Tuesday’s elections.

Fresh off a midterm victory that gives them control over both chambers next year, Republicans will use the lame-duck session to pick leaders and plot strategies for confronting President Obama in the homestretch of his White House tenure.

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Democrats, meanwhile, face a more pressing question as they shift into defensive mode after losing the Senate: Should they fight hard now for party priorities while they still control the upper chamber, or focus on must-pass bills and leave the tougher battles for the next Congress?

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies Republicans are headed for a disappointing end to their year in power Obama's HHS secretary could testify in Menendez trial MORE (D-Nev.) is eyeing a packed schedule, with a focus on essential items like a Defense authorization bill, an omnibus spending proposal, a popular tax-extenders package and renewal of the current ban on Internet-access taxes.

But he’s also facing pressure from inside his ranks to expand the lame-duck agenda, including a high-profile push by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to rein in surveillance programs at the National Security Agency — a move opposed by the White House.

“There is no excuse for inaction,” Leahy said last month in a statement urging a lame-duck vote.

Reid is hardly the only leader facing pressures, however. 

Some Republicans are pushing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to oppose any long-term spending bill that doesn’t explicitly prohibit funding for an executive action Obama might take to rein in deportations. The president has vowed to act unilaterally this year to ease those enforcement policies if Congress doesn’t send him legislation first. The move is anathema to conservatives, who consider it “amnesty” for those living in the country illegally. 

“The president cannot, having had his policies defeated at the ballot box, impose them through executive decree,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who will likely head the Budget Committee in the next Congress, said following the elections.

Sessions is urging GOP leaders to adopt a short-term spending bill — in lieu of the 10-month package under consideration — “so our new majority can take office and pass a funding measure that includes the needed language.”

McConnell has vowed not to allow another government shutdown, but time is running short. The deadline for a spending compromise is Dec. 11.

Complicating the equation, Obama is asking Congress for billions of dollars in emergency funding to fight Ebola and confront Islamic militants in Syria. 

“Those ... at this point, would be the priorities,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday.

Also up in the air are scores of judicial and executive branch nominations awaiting action by the Senate. Reid and the Democrats are weighing an eleventh-hour strategy for pushing as many of those nominees through as they can, but simple time constraints make confirmation for most unlikely this year, especially in the face of GOP opposition to many of them.

Indeed, aides in both parties say the fight over Obama’s recent pick of Loretta Lynch to replace outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder, the most prominent of the pending nominees, will almost certainly be pushed to next year, when McConnell, the presumptive majority leader of the 114th Senate, would oversee the process.

“It’s difficult to process an [attorney general] that quickly,” said a Democratic aide.

Coming out of the midterms, leaders in both parties have promised to reach across the aisle for the sake of breaking the partisan logjam that’s sunk public approval of both Obama and Congress to record lows.

“We can surely find ways to work together on issues where there’s broad agreement among the American people,” Obama said last week.

Yet even as both sides were vowing a new era of bipartisan cooperation, they were also setting the stage for high-stakes confrontations over some of the most contentious issues of the day. 

The president riled Republicans on Monday when he urged the Federal Communications Commission to adopt tough new rules designed to ensure open Internet access for all users. And he’s doubled down on his promise to use his executive pen to reduce deportations — a threat McConnell characterized recently as “waving a red flag in front of a bull.”

GOP leaders, for their part, are vowing to take on equally divisive topics. At the top of their list are proposals to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline, scale back the Democrats’ healthcare reform law and eliminate scores of regulations under the Environmental Protection Agency.

“These types of common-sense solutions, so long ignored by the outgoing Senate majority, offer a good starting point,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said over the weekend in the GOP’s weekly radio address.

Officially, Congress is slated to be in session for four weeks during the lame-duck. But there are already whispers that the window could close; GOP leaders in both chambers have every interest in delaying the tougher fights until next year, when they’ll have control of the Senate and more numbers in the House.

Even though the power dynamics have changed post-midterms, the faces are still likely to stay the same. 

McConnell, Reid and Boehner are all expected to cruise to victory in their bids to remain party leaders in the next Congress, as is House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Their top lieutenants are also expected to keep their seats of power.

“At the top, it’s pretty much the same cast of characters we’ve had for a long time,” observed a Democratic strategist.