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A Look Ahead: What Issues are Likely to Dominate the Agenda in Washington in 2015?

- January 2015

First, a quick look back:

Congress ended the year in December much as they began it last January. The House GOP Leadership had to find the votes to pass a wrap-up spending bill to keep government agencies funded.

No-compromise conservatives in both houses of Congress demanded that the spending bill include a provision to block the President’s executive action granting temporary legal status to missions of illegal immigrants, even if that action would result in a government shut-down. The president said he would veto any bill that included that language.

A coalition of liberal House Democrats joined conservatives in opposing the Omnibus bill, which after touch-and-go negotiations, finally passed the House on Thursday, December 11th, with 219 votes – only one more than the 218 required.

The bill was sent to the Senate where, on Friday, December 12th, Leaders Reid and McConnell agreed on a process for passage of the bill the following Monday. After GOP Leader McConnell had left the Senate floor that evening, assuming that his agreement with the Democrat leader was in place, Conservative Texas Senator Ted Cruz went to the Senate floor and blew up that agreement. The bill was subsequently passed (late in the evening on Saturday), by a comfortable 56-40 margin, but the Cruz action forced the Senate to remain in session over the weekend instead of returning Monday for the final votes. Ironically, and as so often happened when conservatives chose to obstruct, the delay that Senator Cruz caused gave Democrat Leader Reid the time and opportunity – over the weekend session that would otherwise not have happened – to force confirmation votes on a number of controversial Obama nominees; nominees that the incoming GOP Senate majority would likely never have confirmed in January.

The final days of the 113th Congress were not pretty, especially for the GOP as the feuding between GOP Leader Senator McConnell and Senator Cruz took center stage.

Despite the ugly sausage-making of the legislative process, the passage of the Omnibus spending bill was significant because it funded all but one of the Federal departments and agencies through the end of the fiscal year on September 30, 2015, and prevented another government shutdown. (The Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for immigration policy, was funded only through the end of February). [See more below in this staff report and in the separate staff report on Budget, Debt Limit, and Spending: What to Look for in the 114th Congress]

And also significant: With the enactment of the Omnibus bill, Congress completed action on the spending measures for Fiscal Year 2015, an accomplishment important to the new GOP majority. For the first time in many years, when Congress convened in January, 2015, the Leaders were not faced with having to complete the unfinished business of the previous Congress before tackling a new agenda.

A look in the crystal ball … what lies ahead?

No one knows at this point what issues Congress will tackle and what their priorities will be…whether President Obama will work with the GOP Congress or continue to act unilaterally…if enough Senate Democrats will work with the GOP to overcome Reid-led filibusters…whether House Republicans will provide House Speaker the votes he needs to manage the House.

Congressional Republicans closed 2014 with open confrontation between no-compromise conservatives and GOP Leaders, and the President closed 2014 with an unnecessarily confrontational threat to veto legislation passed by the GOP-led Congress. It’s too early in 2015 to know for sure what lies ahead, but here’s a look at a few of the issues that are likely to be part of the debate.

Budget and Fiscal issues: Probably the most fundamental obligation of Congress is to discharge its fiscal duties – to pass a budget resolution, enact the spending bills that fund government departments and agencies, raise the revenue necessary to meet those spending obligations, and ensure the country’s long-term solvency. Those duties have not been properly discharged by Congress in many years, and the profligate spending of the Obama Administration has exacerbated the problems we face. [See separate staff report on Budget, Debt Limit, And Spending: What to Look for in The 114th Congress]

Energy/Environment: One of the first items to emerge in the new Congress was legislation to authorize construction of the Keystone pipeline. The House had passed Keystone legislation before and early passage by both houses in 2015 was a high priority. Senate Democrat Leader Reid had refused to allow a vote on a Keystone bill until last fall when, in a last-ditch effort to save a Senate seat, he finally scheduled a vote on a Keystone bill pushed by former Louisiana Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu. The legislation got 59 votes, one vote short of the 60 needed for passage (and the vote did not save her Senate seat). With the GOP gain of 9 seats in the Senate, it is fairly certain that a Keystone bill will reach the President’s desk early this year. What is not known as of this writing is whether the President will bow to demands of environmentalists and veto this long-overdue legislation.

On the environmental front, it is likely that Congress will attempt to stall or block the President’s regulatory agenda on greenhouse gases, especially since Senate Majority Leader McConnell has vowed to fight the Obama “war on coal.” There could also be action in response to the climate change deal with China that the President announced late last year.

Health Care: Votes to fully repeal Obamacare are certain to be held in both the House and Senate, with the legislation passing the House and blocked by a Democrat filibuster in the Senate. While full repeal will not pass, a number of other initiatives, in Congress, the regulatory agencies and the courts are expected. [See separate staff report on Health Care Reform for more details.]

Immigration: Congress has not passed a comprehensive immigration bill since 1986, and it is generally believed that the flood of immigrants that came across our southern border after that bill was enacted set the stage for the anti-amnesty position held by many in Congress today. Although some of the extreme anti-immigrant voices that dominated the debate a decade ago are gone, Congress remains badly divided on the issue. Many – probably most – in the GOP believe any reform must include strong border security provisions. Unfortunately, a bill with border security and some kind of guest worker program remains elusive. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to reform is the intensity with which many Congressional Republicans distrust the President. They believe that if they enact a comprehensive immigration bill with tough border security language and a guest worker program, President Obama will ignore border security and any other provisions he dislikes, and pursue only the guest worker/amnesty provisions. Given the President’s record of taking unilateral action even when it is clearly outside his authority, that distrust is understandable. Despite the political climate, this is an issue many expect Congress to tackle this Congress.

Regulatory overreach: We fully expect a full-steam-ahead approach from the Administration in the regulatory arena. Congressional action to actually revoke regulations is very difficult to achieve. In fact the Congressional Review Act (CRA), one of the few means Congress has to revoke a regulation, has been successfully used only once, when Congress used the CRA to revoke President Bill Clinton’s ergonomics regulation – and that effort only succeeded because President Bush had been elected and signed the bill. President Obama would certainly veto any CRA revocation passed by this Congress.

Short of actually revoking regulations, Congress will likely tackle the Obama Administration hyper-regulatory agenda by other means at its disposal. The now GOP-chaired Committees in both the House and Senate are expected to pursue aggressive agency oversight hearings, and those hearings will certainly include review of the agencies’ regulatory actions. There will also likely be legislation considered to reform our regulatory processes. One bill, the “Regulations From the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act” has been passed by the House several times already, and is pushed in the Senate by Rand Paul (R-KY). The REINS Act would subject executive branch regulations to Congressional review. Another bill that has even broader business support is the Regulatory Accountability Act, which would reform the regulatory process from the beginning, rather than using the REINS Act’s retroactive approach.

[For more information, see our Legal Update and Staff Reports on Health Care Reform, OSHA Reform, and the Regulatory Agenda]

Reconciliation: One other topic to watch for, although it does not fit into any specific issue bucket, is “reconciliation.” Under the Congressional Budget Act, a Budget Resolution may include reconciliation language – language that instructs one or more committees to write legislation that changes current law to reconcile that law with the new spending and tax levels contained in the Budget Resolution. That sounds arcane, and it is, but it is important because reconciliation bills, like Budget Resolutions, are considered under special rules that limit the amount of time that can be spent debating them. That is of particular importance in the Senate, because reconciliation bills cannot be filibustered and require only 51 votes to pass.

While technically reconciliation bills are to be used only to adjust spending and revenue numbers, the reconciliation process has been used to pass significant legislation in recent years. Reconciliation was used to pass major parts of President Reagan’s agenda in 1981, and it was used to pass the 2001 Bush tax cuts. And, perhaps most significantly, Obamacare would never have become law had the Democrats not turned reconciliation on its head to use it to force passage of that bill. There has already been considerable speculation about how the new Senate GOP majority might use a reconciliation bill.