Republicans take the reins

Greg Nash

It’s game time for Mitch McConnell and John Boehner.

For the first time since 2006, Congress is convening this week under full GOP control, with McConnell (Ky.) reaching the pinnacle of Senate majority leader and Boehner (Ohio) poised to win a third term as Speaker.

{mosads}With a 54-46 majority in the Senate and an expanded majority in the House, Republicans are under pressure to deliver on their promises and move a raft of legislation to President Obama’s desk in the first few months of the year.

But in order to achieve that goal, McConnell and Boehner will need to unify their troops around a shared agenda — a task that will begin in earnest later this month, when House and Senate Republicans will hold a joint retreat in Hershey, Pa., to prepare for what one GOP aide described as the “frictions that will inevitably arise.”

Right off the bat, Boehner will have to deal with the political fallout from the revelation that House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) spoke to a white supremacist group in 2002, which has cast a cloud over the new session. The Chicago Tribune and conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer have called on Scalise, the No. 3 ranking House Republican, to step down.

Boehner has stood behind Scalise, putting his clout on the line ahead of Tuesday’s vote for Speaker. Defections are expected, but Boehner can afford to lose up to 28 Republicans before the Speaker vote would go to a second ballot.  

Once the pageantry of Congress’s opening days is through, Republican leaders are hoping to get off to a fast start.

McConnell and Boehner, who consult weekly, set the tone after the midterm elections with an agenda that emphasizes jobs and the economy.

“That means a renewed effort to debate and vote on the many bills that passed the Republican-led House in recent years with bipartisan support, but were never even brought to a vote by the Democratic Senate majority,” Boehner and McConnell wrote in a joint op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.

The bicameral retreat, meanwhile, will give House and Senate Republicans an opportunity to coordinate their strategy for 114th Congress, which is likely to be dominated as time goes on by the politics of the 2016 presidential race.

“A lot of senators don’t meet House members and vice versa. It’s an opportunity to hear directly from senators and House members about what we expect to do over here and what they expect to do over there,” said Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman.

Both leaders recognize that getting legislation to Obama’s desk requires picking up Democratic votes in both chambers. That means focusing on smaller-scale proposals that have bipartisan support instead of sweeping initiatives favored by the party’s conservative base, such as a full repeal of ObamaCare.

McConnell says legislation authorizing construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline will be the first bill to reach the floor under his leadership, something that GOP aides predict will happen the week of Jan. 12.

Other candidates for Senate floor action this month are Ashton Carter’s nomination for secretary of Defense and an Iran sanctions bill backed by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

Graham predicted a January vote on the sanctions bill during an appearance last month with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

McConnell has left the schedule fluid by promising both Republican and Democratic colleagues free rein to amend the Keystone bill, which could prolong the floor debate until the end of the month.

On the House side, GOP leaders are gearing up for votes on several economic bills that passed the lower chamber with bipartisan support but stalled in the Senate.

In the first two weeks, according to a senior GOP aide, House lawmakers will vote on the Hire More Heroes Act, which would exempt veterans who already receive health coverage through the Department of Veterans Affairs from counting toward the threshold for ObamaCare’s employer mandate. That bill passed the House in March 406 to 1.

The tactical approach is frustrating Tea Party critics who fear the GOP will sacrifice principal for points-scoring.

“What I expect is disappointment. It would be nice if the leadership had any interest or any will to fulfill the very limited campaign promises that all their people were running on,” said Ken Cuccinelli, president of the Senate Conservatives Fund.

He argued that blocking Obama’s “executive amnesty” order protecting millions of illegal immigrants from deportation and repealing ObamaCare were “the only specific promises that crossed all the races” of the midterm elections.

By moving smaller-bore initiatives, Cuccinelli said Republican leaders will “jump from one shiny object to another” instead of addressing the most important fights in Washington.

Barney Keller, a spokesman for the Club for Growth, said “if Republicans only play small ball and pass the medical device repeal and Keystone, which we support, and ignore big things like tax reform, it prevents them from defining what they say they’re for.”

McConnell has often noted that a Republican-controlled Congress cannot override Obama’s expected vetoes. And he has downplayed the chances of tax reform by noting that Democrats want to use it to raise $1 trillion in new government revenue.

His goal is to break up what he calls the logjam in Washington by getting the Senate functioning and passing legislation again, even if the initial proposals are modest.

The emerging schism between GOP leaders and conservative groups could give Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is angling for a 2016 White House bid, an opportunity to fire up conservative activists by challenging leadership.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), another White House contender, has pressed his own agenda by calling on GOP leaders to vote this month on legislation allowing corporations to repatriate overseas profits.

A senior GOP aide said that, while presidential politics are beginning to dominate the headlines, it is not in any candidate’s interest to “hurt the party’s brand by blowing things up under the dome.”

Much of the first week in the Senate will be devoted to “housekeeping” items for the new session, according to a senior GOP aide, including votes on committee chairmen and the ratio of seats between the parties.

Senate Republican leaders are also readying for a debate during the first several weeks of 2015 on a resolution authorizing military force against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The House, meanwhile, plans to take up the Save American Workers Act, which would repeal ObamaCare’s 30-hour threshold for fulltime employment and replace it with a 40-hour standard. That bill passed the House with 18 Democratic votes in April.

House GOP leaders are looking at January votes on legislation authorizing Keystone, which garnered 31 Democratic “yes” votes in November, and legislation streamlining federal approval for natural gas pipeline applications, said the senior GOP aide. The latter was sponsored by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) in the last Congress and passed with 26 Democrats in 2013.

The Regulatory Accountability Act sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), which passed the House in 2011 with 19 Democratic votes, is also on deck. It would require agencies to conduct cost-benefit analyses of proposed regulations.

Senior Senate and House aides say another high priority is approving funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which expires at the end of February.

Boehner’s leadership team is “asking for input” from rank-and-file members about how that bill should address Obama’s executive order on illegal immigrants, said a senior GOP aide.

The chosen course of action could usher in a new era of confrontation with Obama, possibly culminating later this year in battles over the debt ceiling and the budget.

Tags Bob Goodlatte Boehner John Boehner Lindsey Graham Mark Kirk Mitch McConnell Rand Paul Robert Menendez Ted Cruz

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