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The 114th Congress kicked off in the usual fashion: Vice President Joe Biden schmoozed with babies, mothers and significant others during his ceremonial swearing-in duties in the Senate, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi awkwardly handed the speaker’s gavel to re-elected House Speaker John Boehner, and children and grandchildren of House members looked as bored as ever sitting on the House floor during the opening hours.
But behind the pomp, circumstance and giddiness of the first day of the new session, the tone for the next two years was already being set. The White House started the ball rolling Tuesday with a threat to veto the XL Keystone pipeline bill, the first piece of legislation Republicans plan to send his way. And Republicans, jubilant after a midterm election victory, are now facing the difficult realities of governing.
Boehner and the House
Boehner was successfully re-elected as House speaker but not without tumult. Twenty-five of his fellow Republicans opposed him, which is twice as many who opposed him just two years ago. The opposition came even though Boehner worked to get Republicans elected and successfully expanded the Republican majority in the House to a lofty 246 members.
While the dissent had no immediate impacts on his speakership, it’s a preview of the dynamics Boehner must face for the next two years where he will have to continue his work corralling a caucus where some members have no qualms with publicly bashing their leader and derailing Republican agendas.
Congressional scholar Thomas Mann with the Brookings Institute said that while the rebellious faction could “complicate” Boehner’s life over the next two years, he doesn’t see much changing with how the House operated previously.
Even with a Republican majority, Boehner has had difficulty passing Republican legislation that some didn’t think was conservative enough. He ran into trouble most recently in the lame-duck Congress in November trying to pass a government funding bill. A minority of his caucus also forced a government shutdown in the fall of 2013 over the Affordable Care Act.
Boehner’s work includes avoiding future government shutdowns or federal defaults, even as those threats will exist. Pressing issues are on the horizon, including funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which runs out at the end of February and will invoke a bitter battle over immigration and President Barack Obama’s recent executive order.
Jim Manley, former aide to Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid, also said he doesn’t see a lot getting done in the next two years.
“House Republicans still don’t get the fact that they’re going to need a compromise to get stuff out of the Senate,” Manley said.
McConnell and the Senate
On the other side of the capitol, the new Republican majority easily handed the leader title to Sen. Mitch McConnell, who also delivered large legislative victories and a Republican marjoity. But the Kentucky Republican’s days will not be easy. While he doesn’t want it to be “scary” for the American public to have Republicans in charge and that he wants to govern “constructively,” he also has components of the raucous caucus, including Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, who push an agenda that is sometimes out of step from the rest of the party.
Mann said that McConnell’s strategy definitely takes into effect electoral politics, but for the benefit of the party not one specific member. “(T)heir interest isn’t too legislate but to make a state and satisfy constituencies and to win the presidency,” he said.
In addition, the presidential campaign cycle is here and at least three members contemplating a run for president and their own ambitions, further complicating McConnell’s effort to keep a united front.
Billy Piper, McConnell’s former chief of staff from 2002 until 2011, said McConnell is “not under any illusions” that his task will be easy, but Piper said McConnell believes the best way to manage the Senate is to also include “the minority’s best interest.”
He thinks “the minority should be enthusiastic as well,” Piper said.
Speaking of the minority: While Senate Republicans have 54 members, they will need six Democrats to break a filibuster. A bloc of moderate Democrats will have more power than they’ve seen in previous years.
Their might is on display before the new Congress even gaveled into session Tuesday. One of those moderate Democrats, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, held a news conference with Republican Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota in support of the XL Keystone Pipeline, where he said he is “optimistic” about the future of the Senate.
Repeat: A Democratic senator said he’s optimistic about the senate with Republicans in control.
Manchin is just one of a handful of Democrats who could see their stars rising as they could be the center of attention as both Democrats and Republicans will lobby then for their support.
President Obama has invited congressional leaders to the White House next week to discuss areas where they can agree.
But one area won’t be the current version of the XL Keystone legislation. White House spokesman Josh earnest said Tuesday he “can confirm that the president would not sight this bill.” While Republicans control both Houses, overriding a presidential veto with two-thirds of the legislative bodies will not be easy.
Keystone is the first major test for a president who has enjoyed the support of at least one half of the legislative branch on his side that blocked any undesirable legislation from reaching his desk.
The Republican led Congress also plans to send President Obama bills that would chip away at the Affordable Care Act, including a bill that would return the definition of a full time worker from 30 hours to 40 hours per week. Critics say it would chip away at the employer mandate of providing health care because employers schedule workers for 39 hours and not provide health coverage.
While Republicans are pushing their agenda in Washington, President Obama is heading out of town to promote his own agenda. He travels to Phoenix to talk about the recovering housing market, to Michigan to talk about the revival of the auto industry and to Tennessee to talk about college affordability – three issues not on the legislative agenda for Republicans over the next few weeks.