The do-something Congress? Ranking the most likely legislation

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It’s time for Congress to get down to business.

With the State of the Union in the rearview mirror, and Republicans settling into power in the House and Senate, the pomp and circumstance of a new congressional session is rapidly giving way to the grind of legislating.

{mosads}While President Obama and Republican leaders have expressed a desire to work together, there appears to be little overlap between their agendas, with the White House already issuing vetoes for several Republican proposals.

For anything to be accomplished, lawmakers will have to act fast, as they have perhaps six to nine months before the presidential race becomes an all-consuming pursuit.

Here’s a look at the major legislative areas where an Obama signature is most likely, ranked from most likely to least.

1. Cybersecurity. The recent Sony hack could provide momentum for legislation dealing with the explosion of cyber threats against private companies.

The president has urged Congress to pass measures to facilitate coordination on cyber threats between the private and public sectors, and to create nationwide cyber defense standards.

House Republicans have passed cybersecurity bills in the last two sessions of Congress and have expressed an openness to working with the White House on the issue.

Still, fights over privacy have thwarted legislation in the past, and there’s no guarantee lawmakers can thread the needle this time.

2. Trade. There’s a strong case to be made that trade is the policy area most ripe for deal-making in 2015.

But doubts about whether President Obama can get Democrats onboard make legislation far from a sure thing, despite support from leading Republicans such as Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.).

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reiterated his opposition last week to approving fast-track trade authority. Many Democrats, echoing the views of labor unions, believe that trade deals hurt American workers by forcing them to compete with low-wage labor in foreign countries.

The White House has said it will “work hard” to secure Democratic votes for fast-track authority. The power would limit Congress to only a simple up-or-down vote on a final deal, which the White House says would give trade partners reassurance that Congress would not try to alter the terms of a deal.

3. ISIS war authorization. Congress stopped short of a full-scale authorization of military force (AUMF) against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) last September, instead approving a short-term authorization to train Syrian rebels against the group.

But some members of Congress are pushing for a vote on the AUMF in the new Congress, and Obama urged a vote in his State of the Union.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said last week that a new AUMF could come up for a vote in the spring, after the White House formally sends an authorization proposal to Congress.

Still, whether lawmakers will be willing to take a tough vote on the use of military force remains to be seen.

4. Infrastructure spending. Republicans are signaling an interest in a funding increase for domestic transportation projects despite disagreements with Democrats over how to pay for it.

“While I strongly disagree with [President Obama’s] core policies, I do believe there is an opportunity for both parties to find common ground on issues to strengthen our nation’s economy, such as infrastructure,” House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said in a statement last week.

Many transportation advocates have pushed raising the federal gas tax, which has not been increased since 1993 and provides about $34 billion in revenue annually.

Obama called for a “bipartisan infrastructure plan” in his State of the Union but didn’t call for an increase in the gas tax, which is a non-starter with many Republicans. 

5. Patriot Act changes. Parts of the Patriot Act, which authorized spying programs in the wake of 9/11, will expire on June 1.

Congress will debate how to reauthorize those provisions, with some lawmakers likely to question whether they should be renewed at all.

The most controversial portion is Section 215, which the National Security Agency (NSA) uses to authorize the bulk collection of data about Americans’ phone calls. Lawmakers may turn to a short-term extension if they can’t agree on a broader proposal.

6. Medical device tax. House Republicans have voted over 50 times to repeal or modify ObamaCare, and are now pushing targeted changes to the law in hopes of drawing Democratic support.

The most promising target is the healthcare law’s medical device tax, a 2.3 percent excise tax that helps fund the law’s expansion of insurance coverage.

A bill to repeal the law’s 2.3 percent sales tax on medical devices could get 60 votes in the Senate with the help of centrist Democrats and even more liberal members like Minnesota Democratic Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar.

But whether Obama would accept the bill is unclear, as he has vowed not to sign any legislation that he believes undermines his signature legislative achievement.

7. Tax reform. President Obama’s “Robin Hood” proposal that would raise taxes on the wealthy isn’t going anywhere, and the two parties remain worlds apart on individual tax reform.

But the Obama administration and Republicans both suggested last week that there could be room for agreement on an overhaul of the tax code for businesses. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has said bipartisan support exists for reducing the corporate tax rate from 35 to 28 percent.

Ryan, whose committee deals with tax policy, further suggested that both sides could reach agreement to bolster the earned income tax credit, which provides a break for people with low-to-moderate salaries.

8. Keystone XL pipeline. Republicans made approving construction of the pipeline one of their top priorities after taking power in January.

The House passed a measure during the first week of the session, and the Senate has been debating an identical bill throughout this month. But the House vote didn’t achieve the two-thirds majority necessary to override a veto threat from President Obama, and the Senate is likely to fall short of 67 votes, also.

That doesn’t mean an Obama veto will be the end of the Keystone fight. The House approval earlier this month was the 10th Keystone vote since 2011, and the third in sixth months, as the GOP sought to ratchet up pressure on Obama. More votes on the issue are probably a sure bet even if they have no real chance of becoming law.

— Cory Bennett, Kevin Cirilli, Keith Laing and Julian Hattem contributed.

Tags Al Franken Amy Klobuchar Boehner Harry Reid Jack Lew John Boehner Paul Ryan

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