A New Congress Faces Many Old Problems
Policy + Politics

A New Congress Faces Many Old Problems

When the 114th Congress convenes for the first time on Tuesday, it will do so with the knowledge that its predecessor set the bar so low that outperforming it will require only the minimum of effort and legislative savvy. 

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, is setting a tone that suggests he expects the Senate to do more than just phone it in for the next two years. The legislative calendar issued by the Kentucky Republican’s office last week has the Senate in session far longer than the 2014 calendar produced by outgoing Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). 

Related: Government Leadership Is Now Top Concern, Says Gallup 

The most notable change? McConnell appears to expect the Senate to work on Fridays – something Reid’s Senate did not do. (To be fair, Reid’s original calendar had the Senate working on Fridays, but it never happened in practice. Whether McConnell will stick to the schedule or bow to pressure from West Coast lawmakers who want to get home for the weekend remains to be seen.) 

On the House side, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has set a somewhat more relaxed tone with his calendar, which was released last month. While McConnell’s schedule envisions a Senate in session for more than 190 days in 2015, McCarthy’s House would convene for only 132 days. Yet that’s far more than the House worked in the first session of most recent Congresses. 

Either way, incoming lawmakers will have to address a number of issues in the early part of this year: 

The Fate of Rep. Steve Scalise
Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), who moved into the role of House Majority Whip last fall, was caught up in a scandal in the final week of 2014. Scalise admitting giving a speech to a white supremacist group in his home state in 2002. Ironically, he may not have addressed that group, which was also organized in the same venue by Kenny Knight, a longtime associate of KKK leader, David Duke. According to a report in Slate, Knight had use of the hotel space for the morning and afternoon, and used the morning for a meeting of the Jefferson Heights Civic Association, where both Knight and Scalise lived. He invited Scalise, a local member of the police force and a member of the Red Cross to speak to the elderly members of the Civic Association. Scalise association with Knight could have confused Scalise into thinking he was talking to a white supremacist group. If so, he gave himself permission to do it. 

Related: Steve Scalise Is John Boehner’s New Political Headache 

Whether or not Scalise suffers enduring political fallout from the fact that he spoke to the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, which has close ties to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, remains to be seen. But his somewhat desperate efforts to claim he had no idea who the group was are not serving him particularly well. 

He has so far claimed he couldn’t check the group out because there was no Google in 2002. But there was. He also said he was unfamiliar with the group, Scalise clearly could have asked his pal Knight what the organization was and who was behind it. 

A New Defense Secretary
The resignation of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last month left a lame duck at the helm of the Pentagon, something both parties seem ready to address quickly. 

President Obama, with little delay, nominated well-respected former Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to replace Hagel. According to most sources, including senior Republican leadership staff, incoming Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Jon McCain (R-AZ) is anxious to start the confirmation process and hearings may begin as soon as next week. 

Homeland Security
The “CRomnibus” spending bill passed by Congress in December did not include a full year’s funding for the Department of Homeland Security. That’s because Republicans wanted a chance to challenge President Obama’s immigration policies in the new Congress. 

Related: The 6 Most Powerful Political Players in 2015 

DHS is now funded under a continuing resolution that will expire at the end of February, meaning Congress will have to address the question of how to fund the agency early in the session. 

The issue is bound to be contentious. Many Republicans remain furious that the president took executive action to eliminate the threat of immediate deportation for several million illegal immigrants. The tricky part, though, is that those same lawmakers favor tight border security and enforcement. Delays in funding DHS or uncertainty about its future could risk undermining the very thing they claim to support. 

Sen. McConnell has been pretty pragmatic about the futility of legislative proposals to repeal or defund the Affordable Care Act, pointing out that as long as President Obama is in the Oval Office no such bill will ever get signed into law – and that Republicans don’t have a large enough majority in Congress to support a veto override. 

That doesn’t mean Congress won’t vote on it anyway. 

Related: Five Important Fresh Faces in the 114th Congress 

Many new members of the 114th Congress, particularly in the House, have never had the opportunity to cast an official vote against Obamacare. And as many incoming Republicans made gutting the president’s domestic policy achievement a key part of their campaigns, Republican leadership in both houses will likely hold a pro forma vote to repeal the law sometime early on, to allow new members to check that partisan box. 

Debt Ceiling
It’s baaaack. Yes, the debt ceiling, which has regularly threatened the sterling credit of the U.S. government and threatened, sometimes successfully, to bring the executive branch to a halt, will be injected back into national politics sometime in the first half of 2015. 

The government will reach its borrowing limit at an unspecified point in the summer. So in the first half of the year, Congress will have to vote to raise it or watch the government default on its debts. 

Lawmakers have generally shown themselves incapable of acting on the debt ceiling until a crisis is imminent. Promises by influential lawmakers, such as incoming House Budget Committee Chair Tom Price (R-AK), to use debt-ceiling negotiations as a “pinch point” to force concessions out of the Obama administration, suggest this year will be no different. 

Related: States Are Spending More as Economy Improves

Iran Sanctions
A bipartisan coalition of senators is backing additional economic sanctions for the U.S. to levy on Iran, should it break an interim agreement on limiting the development of nuclear technology or bow out of current negotiations to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon. 

Over the weekend, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) insisted the Senate would vote on the package this month, and a senior Republican leadership aide confirmed Friday that there is support for a vote from both sides of the aisle. 

The move could complicate ongoing negotiations with Iran; particularly given the news Friday that a tentative agreement appeared to have been reached under which Iran would transfer some of its enriched uranium to Russia. 

The White House signaled last week that the president is open to working closely with the new GOP leadership on a range of issues and setting aside his tactic of using executive orders to advance his agenda, The Wall Street Journal reported. 

This new approach reflects an administration acknowledgement that Obama may have gone just about as far as he can on his own in achieving major policy objectives like immigration reform and a crackdown on industrial pollution – and now might more easily achieve other goals by seeking common ground with the GOP. But that assumes the two sides can get past their rancor – which won’t be easy. 

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