After starting off with two years of a Democratic majority in the Congress, and then dealing with a divided Congress for the next four years, President Obama now faces a different dynamic, as Republicans this week take the reins of power in both houses of Congress, offering chances for both cooperation and conflict in 2015.
“The new year with bring a new American Congress, and with it, the opportunity to build a stronger economy and secure a better future for our country,” Speaker John Boehner said in his invitation to the President to give his State of the Union Address on January 20.
Asked at his year-end December news conference about what’s next, the President said he was ready to deal with Republicans on areas where they could find common ground.
“I think there are real opportunities to get things done in Congress,” the President told reporters, though in the same breath he vowed to veto plans that would make big changes in Mr. Obama’s signature health law and in reforms for Wall Street.
So, how might things change?
1. The GOP Agenda
After four years of passing bills in the House that went nowhere in the Senate, now Republicans have the chance to get legislation from the House to the Senate floor – and conceivably on to the President’s desk – setting up possible political battles on a number of fronts. The change in dynamic will be quickly apparent in coming days in the Senate, as Republicans have said they’ll start work first on a bill dealing with the Keystone XL oil pipeline – a Senate committee holds a hearing on the pipeline on Wednesday and will vote on the measure the next day. It may mean the Senate will spend most of the month of January on Keystone and other energy issues.
2. Filibuster flips to the Democrats
After spending the last six years decrying the use of the filibuster and other delaying tactics in the Senate, Democrats may now be the ones using it in coming months to frustrate GOP efforts to pass legislation on a variety of topics. It will likely again prove that support for the filibuster mainly depends on whether your party is in the majority or minority in the Senate. One thing Republicans still must decide is whether to roll back the “nuclear option” change that Democrats used to streamline the process for Presidential nominations, which did away with the need to get 60 votes to force final action on all but Supreme Court nominations.
3. Vetoes or deal-making?
In his first six years in office, President Obama vetoed only two bills; he may get a chance to do much more than that depending on what Republicans are able to get through the Congress. On the other hand – as we saw when Republicans took charge in Congress after the 1994 elections – there could also be the possibility of agreements on big political issues, like the welfare reforms forged by President Bill Clinton and the GOP in 1996. Some Democrats are actually a bit worried that President Obama may bypass them and try to reach deals with Republicans on different items. Don’t assume we are headed only for gridlock, though partisanship seems assured on certain items.
4. Will Republicans keep Boehner as Speaker?
One other story line as lawmakers return this week is another internal GOP challenge to Speaker John Boehner, as more conservative Republicans demand a more aggressive leadership in the Congress.
In recent days, a small number of Republicans have been again making noise about blocking Boehner, fueled most recently by the approval before Christmas of a massive year-end funding bill. Boehner and his allies have repeatedly expressed confidence that the Speaker will survive this challenge; “I don’t see it,” one Republican lawmaker told me over the weekend, while another said the challenge would fizzle. But opponents of Boehner only need to deny him a majority of votes on Tuesday in the House in order to force more balloting – and maybe spur more candidates to get into the race. Boehner survived two years ago by just nine votes.
5. GOP target stays on Obama health law
The very first bill that popped up on the schedule for the first week of the U.S. House was related to the Obama health law, one of what may be many legislative salvos that Republicans will fire at the President’s signature legislative achievement, as many in the GOP say they won’t back off their ultimate goal of repealing the Obama reforms. While Republicans are more than ready to vote for repeal, the GOP has never come together on what to offer in its place – and there is no guarantee Republicans will be able to put together an alternative for a vote in coming months.
6. The GOP outside of Washington, D.C.
Maybe the most important political story of this year might have very little to do with what the Republican majority does in the Congress – instead, it might be what the GOP does with its advantage at the state legislative level. The 2014 elections gave Republicans control in 68 of 98 legislative chambers nationwide. That, plus 31 GOP Governors, will allow Republicans to address all kinds of changes across the country, as Democrats now only control both the legislature and hold the Governor’s office in seven states, down from 13 before the elections. State capitols might be much more important sources of GOP change than the U.S. Capitol in 2015.
7. Could there be an accidental balanced budget?
The last time the yearly budget deficit turned into a surplus was during the Clinton Administration, when the Democrats held the White House and the Republicans were in charge of Congress – the exact same setup we will have starting this week. Back then, the GOP Congress used spending caps to rein in the budget; when combined with a sudden economic surge, it resulted in several years of budget surpluses, almost by accident. While the deficit was well over $400 billion last year, the evidence of stronger economic growth, combined with GOP efforts to hold down spending could well produce a similar situation in 2015 and 2016, as a surge of tax revenue could further reduce the deficit, even without extra budget cuts. The last yearly budget surplus was in Fiscal Year 2001, which covered the end of the Clinton and start of the Bush Administrations.