Politics will top the congressional agenda in 2014

The Capitol dome
The Capitol dome
Tish Wells / McClatchy

McClatchy Washington Bureau

Don’t be fooled by Congress’ flurry of activity when lawmakers return to Washington this week.

This might quickly become a do-little Congress.

It won’t seem that way at first. The early schedule is packed: Monday, the Senate is scheduled to vote on confirming Janet Yellen as the Federal Reserve chairman. Later that evening there’s a key procedural vote on extending emergency unemployment benefits.

The House of Representatives will be back in session Tuesday, and by Jan. 15 Congress is expected to smoothly approve spending plans for the rest of fiscal 2014, which runs through Sept. 30.

Then comes the drama. The first clue about the year’s direction should be apparent as the Feb. 7 deadline for raising the federal debt limit approaches.

Republicans are suggesting that they want some strings attached to doing so – perhaps spending cuts – but they won’t be specific.

“I can’t imagine it being done clean,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

It will be clean, insisted the White House.

“The president will not negotiate over Congress’ responsibility to pay its bills,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said.

A new partisan war could poison relations for months to come, making it tougher to tackle the big issues – such as immigration and farm policy – or even more routine matters, such as next year’s budget.

There’s some hope for civility. The legislative year ended with approval of a two-year bipartisan budget deal, but tension was easy to find. The Senate ended its year with a confirmation process dragged out by Republicans who were furious about rules changes.

The 2014 mood might turn on each party’s election prospects. Republican control of the House appears safe, but the political story of 2014 will involve whether the party can gain the six seats it needs to control the Senate.

“If the GOP concludes that it may well control the Senate, it has few incentives to make deals in the Congress,” said Burdett Loomis, a congressional expert at the University of Kansas.

Midterm elections often fall into two categories: “wave” elections, such as in 2006 or 2010, which are national referendums on policies or presidents, and state-by-state battles, which often turn on personalities or local trends.

So far, 2014 doesn’t have the makings of a wave, so each state has to be watched closely. Many Republican Senate incumbents must survive a minefield of nomination battles with tea party challengers armed with hefty campaign treasuries. Looking too conciliatory might be costly to GOP Senate veterans such as Mississippi’s Thad Cochran, Kansas’ Pat Roberts, Texas’ John Cornyn, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and others.

But if they stray too far to the right, they risk being branded as extremists in the general election. Voters have sent strong signals that they’re tired of a polarized capital.

Democrats have their own challenge. Most of the vulnerable incumbents are from more conservative states, so appearing too close to President Barack Obama or Senate liberals might be lethal.

The election adds to the unpredictability of a year whose legislative scorecard will rest on a series of hard-to-answer unknowns. Among them:

– Which John Boehner will lead the House? At the end of 2013, the House speaker, an Ohio Republican, began sharply criticizing the more doctrinaire conservative interest groups and got firmly behind the bipartisan budget agreement.

That was a notable shift in tone since Boehner had allowed the more conservative wing to keep pushing for the doomed effort to defund the Affordable Care Act this fall, a strategy that was a major reason for the partial government shutdown in October.

The December budget deal was backed by 169 of the House’s 232 Republicans, as well as 163 of the House’s 201 Democrats. If Boehner continues to encourage cooperation with Democrats, hope for overhauling the immigration system and adopting new agriculture policies – two big issues that have been stuck for months – becomes more realistic.

– Will Republican senators get over their pique about the “nuclear option”? The Democrats’ November decision to permit a simple majority, rather than 60 votes, to cut off debate on most presidential nominees incited Republican anger that still smolders.

“It’s a tragedy the way the Senate is being run into the ground by one person,” said McConnell, long regarded as one of the Senate’s most adept deal-makers. “It’s going to be hard to get the Senate back to normal.”

Republicans do risk looking too obstinate and obstructionist, though.

“The idea that Mitch McConnell will block legislation he sees in his or Republicans’ interest is nonsense,” said Norman Ornstein, a congressional analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right research group.

– Can lawmakers agree on emergency jobless benefits? This fight has been raging for several years. Many Republicans insist that spending cuts offset such benefits. Democrats and some Republicans contend that it’s an emergency and needs no offset.

The Senate plans to consider a three-month extension of the benefits whose $6.5 billion cost wouldn’t be offset. The Republican-led House is not inclined to go along unless it’s paid for. Both sides see a big campaign issue here. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, of California, said Republicans were acting “cruelly,” while many Republicans maintain that the need for such emergency aid is waning.

– Will immigration legislation get anywhere?

A tough call. The Senate passed the most comprehensive overhaul in years on a 68-32 bipartisan vote in June. House Republican leaders back a piecemeal approach. Whether the two sides can find common ground remains uncertain. Both parties have strong political motivation to come up with a plan.

Republicans are mindful of the dismal showing among Hispanics by their 2012 presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. Democrats see the foundation for a majority that could last for years. A Pew Hispanic Trends Project survey this fall found lopsided majorities in favor of creating a path to citizenship for those already in the country illegally. The Senate bill would create a 13-year path to citizenship.

– Can Obama get a break from Republicans?

Doubtful. They’re convinced that the Affordable Care Act is a strong weapon against Democrats. Seven of the most vulnerable Democratic Senate seats are in states that Romney won in 2012. As long as the president’s popularity numbers remain mired in the low 40s, Republicans see little reason to warm to him.

“Just generically, we don’t need to make this election about us,” said Cornyn, the Senate minority whip, whose job is to round up votes. “We need to keep all the focus on the president’s failed policies.”

Obama-bashing has risks, however. If the economy shows strength and the jobless rate plunges, history suggests that the president’s popularity will improve and Democrats are likely to prosper.

The Democrats are banking on it.

“The election’s going to be – as all elections are – about the economy,” Pelosi said.

Email: dlightman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @lightmandavid

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