Both President Obama and Republican leaders in the 114th Congress have pledged to work together on issues of common interest in 2015. They’ve promised that while they will inevitably disagree on many things, there are general areas in which both parties want to get something done and ought to be able to work together.
Yet Vice President Joe Biden hadn’t even finished swearing in the new crop of senators on Tuesday when the White House issued its first veto threat – demonstrating that while there may be areas of mutual interest, the Democratic president and the Republican Congress remain far apart on details.
Both Obama and congressional leaders agree that the U.S. needs to continue developing new sources of energy. But Republicans’ first legislative offering this January is expected to be a bill to approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. On Tuesday afternoon, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest promised that if the bill makes it to the White House, the president would veto it.
Yes, both sides want to develop new energy projects – but they’re miles apart on which ones.
When Obama sits down with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to discuss some other areas that may be ripe for cooperation, such as tax reform, immigration reform, or trade deals, they may run into a similar buzz saw.
Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist and expert on Congress, said, “There are dozens of policy areas” in general where, under the right circumstances, the ability exists to bring Democrats and Republicans together – with the possible exception of gun control. “But when you get down into the details, you run into trouble,” he said.
Immigration reform is a case in point, he said. A Republican immigration reform bill that includes beefed up border security, more sophisticated identification and immigration status technology, and upgraded and expanded visa and agricultural labor programs is entirely possible. “But when you get to things like a path to citizenship, everything breaks down.”
“So there are pieces of it out there – and packaged intelligently and astutely, there might be the possibility of something passing,” Baker said.
Steve Bell, a former Senate Republican aide and now a top official at the Bipartisan Policy Center, is highly skeptical the two sides can achieve much this year unless President Obama and Boehner, in particular, are willing to take big political risks that will likely enrage important factions of their parties.
On immigration reform, for example, Boehner, McConnell and Obama all want to pass comprehensive legislation. But nothing will move in the House unless Obama and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are willing to break with the far left of their party and Boehner fends off the demands of the far right.
On energy legislation, Bell said, the president should have second thoughts about vetoing the Keystone XL pipeline legislation. “That will be the least controversial thing probably in the energy bill,” he said, that newly installed Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-AL) will report.
As for striking a deal on trade legislation, Obama and the Democrats will have no choice but to go over the heads of labor leaders who are opposed to giving the president Trade Promotion Authority fast-track power because of its impact on employees both home and abroad.
“The president is going to have to decide, ‘What am I willing to risk political capital on?’” Bell said. “Just because you and I agree on a part of a subject doesn’t mean we agree on the whole subject. The Republicans and the president may agree on a lot of things, but the truth is that on the major things we’re looking at, the areas of agreement are not big enough to carry the areas of disagreement.”
One factor that creates at least a sliver of hope for compromise: Both sides have strong incentives to get something done.
Obama is looking to flesh out his legacy, and finding some agreement with Congress on one or more major issues would be a big step forward. The GOP, for its part, is very aware it faces a difficult Senate map in 2016 and that it has a poor recent history in presidential elections. The party wants to show it can do more than thwart President Obama at every turn.
However, the type of political cooperation that might make the Republican brand an easier sell on the national stage is precisely the sort of thing that makes for political primaries in heavily conservative districts. One big question for 2015 is whether legislation from Congress will reflect the needs of the national party, or the more parochial concerns of its individual members.
Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: