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Obama and New GOP Congress: Conflict or Cooperation Ahead?

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Also See: 114th Congress: Who's Who

In his final two years in office, President Barack Obama will have to deal with a Republican majority in Congress that is led by two men, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, with whom he has a long and not entirely amicable history.

Obama and Boehner have tussled over many issues since the president’s inauguration in 2009, including a bruising budget battle in 2011 that led to a downgrade in the nation’s credit rating and a bitter fight in 2013 over spending that resulted in a widely criticized 16-day government shutdown. For his part, McConnell famously said in 2010 that his top legislative priority was to ensure that Obama was a one-term president. He has been an unrelenting critic of the president for six years now and that is unlikely to change.

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Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
President Barack Obama reaches to shake hands with members of Congress as he arrives to deliver the State of the Union address in February 2013; Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) applauds at left. Later that year, partisan animosity led to an unpopular 16-day government shutdown.

Not surprisingly, many lawmakers and analysts anticipate that the final two years of the Obama presidency will be contentious on Capitol Hill. With Republicans firmly opposed to him on most major issues and his fellow Democrats no longer enamored with his agenda, Obama may be wondering what can be accomplished between now and 2017. Or he may feel liberated now that he’s no longer up for re-election and will decide to push the executive-action envelope to bypass congressional gridlock. The truth is, no one knows for certain.

Throughout the 2014 midterm congressional campaign, Republican leaders tried to frame the vote as a referendum on Obama. They said the president was to blame for an economy that was sluggish and not producing enough jobs (though recent economic data show otherwise). They accused him of pushing too many regulations, such as the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law, and embracing too much government, such as the Affordable Care Act, i.e. Obamacare. Republican candidates hammered Obama as a passive, even incompetent, manager and cited the failed rollout of the health care law’s website. The GOP also blasted the president from the opposite direction, accusing him of overreaching and operating beyond the limits of his constitutional powers. Connecting their critique of Obama with their campaign opponents, Republicans charged that Democratic candidates would defend and advance Obama’s policies if elected to Congress.

In response, Democrats tried to emphasize middle-class economic issues on the campaign trail, citing the need to increase the federal minimum wage, reduce interest rates for student loans and ensure pay equity for women. Few Democratic candidates tried to defend the president and many conspicuously sought to distance themselves from his administration.

The result was a decisive Republican victory on Nov. 4, as the GOP expanded its majority in the House and regained control of the Senate. Republicans entered the 114th Congress with a 246-188 majority (with one vacancy) in the House and a 54-46 majority in the Senate.

Before the new Congress began, congressional leaders from the two parties and the president tried to dispose of unfinished business during the lame duck session. Deliberations and negotiations were complicated by Obama’s decision in November to issue an executive order on immigration policy that, among other things, shielded millions of illegal immigrations from deportation. McConnell and Boehner vowed to respond forcefully in the next Congress to Obama’s actions, but they urged their angry GOP colleagues to nonetheless support a $1 trillion spending bill that funded most of the government for the rest of the 2015 fiscal year. This package was approved several weeks before Christmas.

Looking to the 114th Congress, there are four broad scenarios on how Obama and the Republican majority might govern. They could forge big agreements, craft modest accords, fall back into partisan gridlock or degenerate into a meltdown.

Most congressional experts and lawmakers say it’s very unlikely the president and the GOP Congress will forge major compromises in the final years of the Obama’s presidency. There is too much history of failure between the president and congressional Republicans and too little trust between them to make this possible. Additionally, neither party’s political base is encouraging, or would even permit, its leaders to make significant concessions to the other side.

However, there is also general agreement that a total meltdown scenario is unlikely. The American people may not have high expectations for their leaders, but they do want them to at least avert disaster. So the most likely scenario is that Obama and Congress will forge modest agreements in some areas, while remaining far apart on others (this is a hybrid of the modest accords and partisan gridlock scenarios). The president and Congress will probably tout their modest deals as evidence of bipartisanship and highlight their disagreements on high-profile issues as proof of their commitment to principle and their unwillingness to surrender to political expediency.

The president, in remarks to the Business Roundtable at the end of last year, observed that while he and Republican leaders disagree on important issues, “there remain enormous areas of potential bipartisan action and progress.” He cited corporate tax reform, infrastructure and free trade as areas “where we have a common vision.”

In his public comments since early November, Senate Majority Leader McConnell has also said there is a chance for agreements this year on business tax reform, trade and infrastructure. “Let’s look for areas of agreement where we can and — above all — let’s make Washington work again for the people we serve,” McConnell said in early January on the Senate floor. He added that divided government, with the president from one party and Congress led by the other party, can produce tangible accomplishments.

But McConnell said bipartisan accords will require the president to “change course and move to the middle” and predicted that Obama will face pressure from congressional Democrats not to compromise. “Now I appreciate that bipartisan compromise may not come easily for the president. The president’s supporters are pressing for militancy these days, not compromise. They’re demanding the comforts of purity over the duties of progress…. We’re calling on the president to ignore the voices of reaction and join us,” he said, echoing the same charges that Democrats have lobbed at Republicans for years.

As the 114th Congress begins, foreign policy challenges loom large for the nation and for lawmakers, although the president, as commander in chief, generally has more discretion to act abroad than he does at home. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) have scheduled wide-ranging hearings to define the challenges the United States faces and place them in a historical context; the first of the hearings was held in mid-January.

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Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
President Barack Obama meets with then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the Oval Office in 2010. McConnell became majority leader after the 2014 midterm election that saw Republicans regain control of the Senate while strengthening their majority in the House.

While American lawmakers ponder the big international picture, they are likely to spend more time focused on specific issues. Disputes, or at least tensions, with the White House seem certain.

An early area of contention pertains to the threat arising from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also called ISIS or ISIL. In December, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in the final days of Democratic leadership, narrowly approved a resolution authorizing the president to use military force against the Islamic State. Many on the committee argued that Obama had been operating under authorities that were approved more than a decade earlier and therefore needed to be revised to be relevant to the conflict with the Islamic State.

However, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee debate and vote in December served mostly to underscore the complex issues that still need to be resolved. There remains disagreement on the length of time for any Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), its geographical scope and whether it should allow for the introduction of American ground troops. Many Republicans and some Democrats argue that Obama still has not presented a coherent plan to defeat the Islamic State. “I have no earthly idea how the administration plans to go about degrading and destroying ISIS in Syria,” Corker said in early December. Both Corker and McCain have urged the White House to send a draft AUMF to Capitol Hill and said their panels will work intensely on the AUMF in the early months of 2015.

Lawmakers will also be thrown back into another security-related debate, this one over NSA reforms, when a key portion of the Patriot Act expires in the middle of the year. The initial uproar over the security agency’s bulk collection of phone metadata revealed by the Edward Snowden leaks, which outraged liberals and libertarians alike, has been somewhat tempered by the January terrorist attacks in Paris, which resurrected the debate over security versus privacy and civil liberties.

Congress is also certain to continue its keen interest in, and skeptical stance toward, the negotiations with Iran about its nuclear program. These talks, which have been extended until June 30, with a framework deal due March 1, are viewed with deep skepticism by many lawmakers who support imposing additional sanctions on Iran as a means of pressuring the longtime adversary into concessions. Another approach some Republicans endorse is legislation that requires the administration to submit any agreement reached with Iran to Congress for its review and vote.

Some Republicans also want to impose even tighter sanctions on Russia in the aftermath of its invasion of Crimea last year and its continuing support of anti-government forces in eastern Ukraine. Corker drafted several bills in the last Congress, including the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, which may serve as the basis for additional legislation to both punish Russia and bolster Ukraine.

A number of lawmakers opposed Obama’s December decision to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba and are likely to hold hearings on the policy shift this year. Key Republicans seem certain to resist any effort to send an American ambassador to Havana or to allocate money to implement the landmark policy. Regardless, the changes won’t affect the longstanding trade embargo against the communist island, which only Congress can lift.

GOP lawmakers are also casting a wary eye on the United Nations Climate Change Conference that will convene in Paris in November with the goal of negotiating a binding international treaty to curb greenhouse gas emissions. If such a treaty is concluded, it would require a two-thirds majority in the Senate to win ratification, a near impossibility in the current partisan environment. Republican lawmakers are instead likely to resist the administration’s domestic energy initiatives, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations that seek to limit carbon pollution from power plants.

Also on the domestic front, it seems unlikely that Obama and GOP leaders in Congress will reach a broad budget agreement to restrain the growth of entitlement programs and reduce longer-term deficits. Negotiations by Obama and Boehner to accomplish this goal collapsed in the summer of 2011 amid partisan rancor and recriminations.

It also seems doubtful that Congress and the White House will reach an accord in the next two years on comprehensive immigration reform. Bipartisan legislation that was approved several years ago in the Senate has never been acceptable to House Republican leaders — and is even less palatable now in the aftermath of the president’s executive order on immigration. It is unclear if narrower immigration bills dealing with border security or a revamped visa program will pass in this Congress or make it past the president’s veto. The House voted last month to revoke the president’s executive actions on immigration as part of a bill funding the Department of Homeland Security, but establishment Republicans in the Senate are hesitant to link immigration with the DHS budget — a move supported by tea party conservatives. The president has also said he would veto any such measure, which could result in a funding clash reminiscent of the government shutdown that damaged Republicans in public opinion polls. 

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Credit: Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson
President Obama delivers his State of the Union address in the House in 2011. Despite years of partisan acrimony, there is tentative hope that a Republican-controlled Congress can come to some kind of agreement with the White House on issues such as free trade and corporate tax reform.

Another signature strategy for Republicans may be simply forcing the president to use his veto pen — something he hasn’t had to do much of in the last six years — to paint him as the real obstructionist in Washington.

On that note, shortly after lawmakers filed back into town last month, the Senate voted 63-32 to kick off a debate over legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, following a House vote to approve the controversial and long-delayed energy project with Canada. Obama, who argues that more time is needed to review the $8 billion pipeline, has threatened to veto the measure; the Senate vote fell short of the 67-vote threshold needed to break that possible veto.

The dramatic slump in oil prices, however, has made Keystone less of a touchstone issue, and the steadily improving job numbers have bolstered Democrats’ claims that the recovery is taking hold. But the economy is sure to continue to play a critical role in the administration’s relations with the Hill.

After the mid-term elections, both Obama and Republican leaders mentioned possible bipartisan agreements on trade and tax policy. There are two major trade agreements that could be concluded this year: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) involving the United States and 11 Asia-Pacific nations and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) involving the United States and the 28 members of the European Union. However, congressional approval of either of these sprawling trade agreements depends on whether Congress first grants the president Trade Promotion Authority that would allow him to send trade agreements to the House and Senate and have them considered in an expedited fashion, without amendments. Boehner and McConnell have called on the president to explicitly request such authority and aggressively lobby Congress for it, reaching out especially to Democrats who have been opponents of TPA in the past. So-called “fast-track authority,” though, would require a leap of faith from both Democrats, who argue that free trade erodes American jobs, and from Republicans distrustful of the president’s agenda and unwilling to hand him a legislative victory.

On the question of corporate tax reform, Obama and the GOP leadership have said an accord is possible. But there are many skeptics on Capitol Hill and elsewhere who note that while almost everyone supports tax reform in the abstract, this consensus frequently breaks down whenever a specific plan is offered that lowers marginal tax rates by eliminating popular tax credits and deductions. Additionally, many Democrats believe that tax reform should generate additional revenues to reduce the budget deficit and fund new programs such as infrastructure, while Republicans want any changes to be revenue-neutral.

While mercifully no major budget battle is expected this year, Republicans have vowed to use the annual appropriations process that funds the operations of the government to rewrite the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank law and the EPA’s regulatory policies. The president is certain to resist these efforts and a clash seems certain, but probably not one leading to a full government shutdown.

Against this complex political backdrop is the further complication of early positioning for the 2016 congressional and presidential elections, which has already begun and will intensify as the year unfolds. While Republicans seem to have a lock on their control of the House for the foreseeable future, there could be a tough battle for control of the Senate in 2016. The electoral map was favorable to Republicans in 2014 with a number of Democratic incumbents either retiring or running for re-election in Republican-leaning states. The opposite will be the case in 2016, as a number of Republican incumbents will be running again in Democratic-leaning states.

The contest to succeed Obama is already capturing the attention of Capitol Hill. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remains the prohibitive favorite to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, but she might get opposition from the left, including possibly Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

The battle for the Republican presidential nomination will be sprawling and messy, with many candidates considering a run, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and others. Some of the GOP candidates will want to weigh in on issues before Congress to define and drive their candidacies, a reality that will not make it easier for Boehner and McConnell to reach agreements with Obama.

While few are expecting sweeping accomplishments from the 114th Congress, both McConnell and Boehner offered guardedly hopeful stances in the first days of the session.

“So yes, the American people elected divided government,” McConnell declared on the Senate floor in early January. “But that doesn’t mean they don’t want us to accomplish anything. If there’s a will to do so, we can come together and achieve great things. And if President Obama is interested in a historic achievement of his own, this can be his time as well,” McConnell said.

From the speaker’s podium on the opening day of the new Congress, Boehner acknowledged that few expect much to be accomplished. But he urged lawmakers to resist the impulse to see politics as merely shadow boxing or show business. “So let’s stand tall and prove the skeptics wrong,” Boehner declared. “Let’s make this a time of harvest.”

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

SIDEBAR

114th Congress: Who’s Who


Republicans will enjoy a 54-46 majority in the Senate and a 246-188 majority in the House. John Boehner of Ohio was re-elected to another term as House speaker. Kevin McCarthy of California will serve as the House majority leader and Steve Scalise of Louisiana will serve as House majority whip. On the Democratic side, Nancy Pelosi of California will continue to serve as the House minority leader, while Steny Hoyer of Maryland will serve as the House minority whip.

Ed Royce, a Republican from California, will be chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York, will be the ranking member. Mac Thornberry, a Republican from Texas, will be the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington State, will be the ranking member.

On the Senate side of the Capitol, Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is now the Senate majority leader and John Cornyn of Texas is the majority whip. The Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, is the now minority leader and Richard Durbin of Illinois is the minority whip.

Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, will be the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, will be its ranking member. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, will be the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, will be the ranking member.

— John Shaw


About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on February 1, 2015