Be careful what you wish for – you just might get it. The proverbial warning should be ringing in the ears of Republican leadership on Capitol Hill as the opening day for the 114th Session of Congress draws near. After eight years in the wilderness – and perhaps four years later than they initially predicted – voters have once again entrusted control of both chambers to the GOP.
That doesn’t mean that the electorate has fallen in love with Republicans. In 1994, Newt Gingrich led the Republican Party to a historic victory against a popular but overreaching Bill Clinton by setting a clear national agenda: the Contract with America. Unlike that election of twenty years ago, the GOP managed to win the 2014 midterms and install majorities in the House and Senate without any clear national agenda, save opposition an unpopular President.
In that, the 2014 result resembles less the 1994 victory that ended 40 years of Democratic control of the House, and more like the 2006 win spearheaded by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. They also beat an unpopular President dogged by questions of competence and scandal, and presaged a clean sweep by Democrats two years later in the presidential election.
Yet two years after that, Democrats had lost the House in a landslide and nearly the Senate – and did lose the upper chamber four years after getting the first sign of an electorate fed up with their own overreach. Therein lies one danger for Republicans, who now control the agenda and can coordinate floor votes for the first time in eight years. Can the GOP leadership demonstrate that they can govern responsibly and set the table for their party’s nominee in 2016? Or do they indulge in indiscriminate obstructionism and further alienate already-skeptical voters?
With that in mind, here are five New Years’ resolutions for the GOP in 2015:
1. Return to regular-order budgeting. For the past several years, Congress has failed to produce a budget in the proper form. Thanks largely to Harry Reid’s insistence on blocking Senate budget proposals, the U.S. has lurched from crisis to crisis in artificial “cliffs,” continuing resolutions, and omnibus spending bills. Massive bills have to get moved within hours, allowing for little scrutiny and no transparency, after nonsensical attempts to push off regular spending decisions until after elections. Small wonder that Congressional approval ratings have plummeted over the same trajectory of fundamental dysfunction on Capitol Hill.
Restoring regular order will make a big impact on even those voters marginally engaged in national politics. The ability to produce a normal budget with separate appropriation bills in a manner that allows for public scrutiny will provide the highest level of contrast between the Reid and Mitch McConnell eras in the US Senate.
The incoming Senate Majority Leader told me in an interview last week that restoring regular order will be one of his first priorities. The lack of drama and histrionics on Capitol Hill may not convince President Obama to go along – in fact, Mitch McConnell (R-KY) expects a lot of vetoes from Obama now that he’s lost the “pocket veto” of the Reid-led Senate majority – but the battle will put Republicans and Obama on a level playing field and push significant responsibility for any disruptions on the White House.
2. Pass the Keystone Pipeline. McConnell also told me that this would be one of the first pieces of legislation to come out of the 114th Session of Congress. It’s popular with the public, has the support of trade unions who would benefit from the construction of the pipeline, and would force Obama to either pander to labor or the radical environmentalists. Either will weaken Obama politically, and Democrats at large in 2016, but it also demonstrates that Republicans want to get things done. A veto is probable, but given the project’s popularity, it won’t be the GOP that gets painted as obstructionist in this case.
3. Pass a border-security bill in answer to Obama’s executive action on immigration. Both McConnell and John Boehner will review their limited options for blocking Obama’s planned executive actions on immigration. They succeeded in getting a huge concession in the “CRomibus” debate with the 90-day funding for DHS, which will control those efforts. Obstruction isn’t their only option, though. Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) will put a bill on the floor to address border security in a separate effort, all the more necessary because of the magnet effect of Obama’s proclamation last month. Republicans need to pass it and send it off to Obama either before or concurrently with whatever funding mechanism they design for HHS in the rest of the year.
If they pass it alone, Obama will almost certainly veto it while demanding a comprehensive approach to immigration. However, voters clearly want a border security solution, and vetoing such a bill would be a disaster for Obama, especially in Border States and the interior West. Plus, while Obama proceeds with his executive action, Republicans can argue that the standalone bill is necessary to balance the impact of Obama’s policies.
4. Tax reform. This is one issue where Barack Obama could look for some kind of domestic legacy – if he’s so inclined. McConnell saw limited opportunities for White House cooperation in the next session of Congress, but this and trade make the most sense. Obama wants to leave his mark on domestic policy in the next two years, and might be inclined to bypass the progressives to simplify the tax systems for individuals and corporations. Such reform could also provide a big boost to the economy, especially if it encourages corporations to repatriate capital and push it into job-creating investment. In a country where five-plus years of so-called recovery has left the middle class in a deep hole that would allow Republicans to argue that their economic agenda is best positioned to ensure real long-term growth.
5. Use the Senate to engage on foreign policy. We have already seen a taste of that in the past week, after Obama’s announcement of normalized relations with Cuba after a 52 year standoff. While the embargo had lost its urgency after the Cold War and some legitimacy after making China a normal trading partner, most Americans expected a better trade for ending it – like a firm commitment to liberalization and improvement on human rights. Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez blasted the move from both sides of the aisle in the Senate, and both sit on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Thanks to the need to confirm diplomats and fund their missions, Republicans will have a voice in foreign policy for the next two years. Rubio will not chair the committee – that falls to Bob Corker (R-TN) – but he will probably run the subcommittee on the Western hemisphere, which means he will impact who gets a confirmation hearing. On a broader scale, Republicans can control trade agreements and personnel choices, and use the Senate floor to highlight an alternative to Obama’s disastrous foreign policy. With the President now regularly in the mid-30s in approval in this arena, the GOP has a big opportunity to make the case for a change in leadership for 2016.
The GOP majority has a full year to make the most solid impression on the governance argument and to build trust with voters. After that, the presidential primary will take precedence in the media and with the attention span of most voters, even while the performance of the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill impacts the prospects for general-election victory in November 2016.
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