For some six years, Republicans have been winning the political public relations game by turning most discussions about President Barack Obama’s policies into diatribes against his landmark-but-unpopular health insurance plan.
But as Obama begins his final two years, both sides of that equation are changing. The GOP, having added control of the Senate to its House majority, strengthened its governmental clout and now needs to show it can govern and break the gridlock it helped to create.
And even before lawmakers returned this week to Washington, Obama took a series of policy initiatives on climate change, immigration and Cuba that raised his job approval numbers and might have opened new ways to put the GOP majorities on the defensive.
Buoyed by a steadily improving economy, he hopes to exert greater influence over the external debate by stressing policies more popular than Obamacare and belittling the GOP’s plans to undo or cripple the signature decisions of his first six years. To make that point, he’s stopping this week in Michigan, Arizona and Tennessee to stress key economic and education programs while the Republicans get down to legislative business after Tuesday’s pomp and optimism.
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It’s a tricky argument for both sides. Obama must convince Americans he is on the right side of issues, something he has not always been successful in doing. The Republicans need to show they can master a system designed to prevent quick action and show they can govern what increasingly has become an ungovernable federal government.
But it took virtually no time Tuesday for efforts by Senate Republicans seeking both full debate and quick action on the long-stalled Keystone interstate gas pipeline extension to run predictably into the same barriers they used last year against the Democrats. And whenever they get untracked, Obama plans to veto the proposal which, despite GOP claims for both its energy and economic benefits, is a rather limited measure that would mainly facilitate oil shipments from western Canada to Gulf Coast refineries for overseas shipment and create only a modest number of mainly temporary jobs.
Unsurprisingly, the other initial GOP target is Obama’s Affordable Care Act. But the only proposals that might quickly pass Congress would merely trim back aspects of the law, rather than cripple it.
Two are aimed at unpopular provisions used to finance the law, one taxing sales of medical equipment and the other defining a work week as 30 hours to require more small businesses to provide their employees with health care coverage. Another would exempt veterans from the law’s individual mandate.
The main impact of the first proposal would be to eliminate some of the health law’s funding, something of an ironic turn for a party that prides itself on wanting to ensure federal programs are paid for (unless, apparently, they benefit business groups or higher-income taxpayers).
The second would ease the economic burden on smaller businesses by transferring costs of health insurance for their employees working less than 40 hours a week to the employees themselves, rather than the company.
In any case, Obama’s veto threat means the Keystone bill isn’t really going anywhere. And, while the preliminary ACA legislation probably wouldn’t affect Obamacare’s future much, it likely faces a similar fate.
To be sure, these are just preliminary skirmishes.
The main threat to Obamacare is likely to come from the courts.
And the first big legislative fight may come, starting next week, when the GOP majority tries to put limits on Obama’s decision allowing some 5 million undocumented workers to stay in the U.S. onto the bill funding the Department of Homeland Security until Sept. 30. Action is due by the end of February after the GOP leadership withheld DHS funding from last month’s measure to fund the rest of the government.
That fight will tell a great deal about whether the new Republican majorities can achieve much beyond some second-level measures and whether the two parties can bridge their broader rifts with the kinds of compromises neither party has cared much to pass in recent years.
In any case, beyond the rosy scenarios of opening day, this was all pretty predictable. If there is any unexpected aspect, it is that Obama has started 2015 with a bit of a tailwind that could make the GOP’s already difficult task that much harder.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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