WASHINGTON — On the first day of the new Congress, lawmakers took about as easy a vote as a member of the U.S. House possibly could — passing a bill called the “Hire More Heroes Act,” a veterans jobs bill that won unanimous support.
It’s only going to get harder from here.
Congress has returned after a session that was so noxiously partisan that it ranks among the least productive in modern U.S. history. Members were, by and large, chipper and upbeat for the new session on swearing-in day, but from here on out, their early schedule is dotted with potential partisan landmines. Obamacare is on the agenda this week. The next two weeks are shortened so the parties can hold their beginning-of-session strategy retreats. The State of the Union is after that, then a likely showdown over immigration in February before budget battles begin to fully bloom.
But Minnesota Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen said Congress will also kick off its new term with a barrage of work and a list of legislation the GOP designed both to help the economy and — they hope — win bipartisan support. The party now controls both the House and Senate, but will need Democratic votes to overcome filibusters in the Senate, and will, of course, need the President’s signature before the end.
“There’s a lot of alignment on a lot of different issues where we’re going to see bipartisan initiatives going through both the House and the Senate for the first time in a long time,” he said. “I think that’s going to bring cooperation from the White House in divided government and our constituents are going to see positive results.”
Obamacare, Keystone on the agenda
The agenda this first week is a good indicator of what Republicans view as first steps on potential boosts for the economy: selectively chip away the Affordable Care Act and push energy policies they’ve long been able to pass through the House, only to see stymied in the Senate.
Their first order of business: two Obamacare-related provisions. The first would exempt veterans already covered by government health insurance from being counted toward the employer mandate — the rule that requires businesses with 50 or more employees to offer a health insurance plan. The move is meant to encourage businesses scared of bumping up against the insurance mandate to hire veterans. That’s the “Hire More Heroes Act,” which the House passed Tuesday night.
The second would redefine a full-time employee — whom businesses are required to cover under the law — from 30 hours to 40 hours. The measure could win bipartisan support, but the White House indicated Tuesday that it opposes the bill.
Keystone comes next — Republicans are pushing to bypass the current State Department review process of the oil pipeline between Canada and the United States. Approving the pipeline project, long delayed by administrative review, has been atop the Republican wish-list for years — they argue the pipeline will lead to job gains and increased North American energy production. It’s very possible they will get it the President’s desk before the end of the month.
Republicans hold 54 seats in the Senate and need just six Democrats to vote for the bill and bypass a potential filibuster. When the Senate voted on the project in December, 14 Democrats joined, though some have since lost their seats. Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken are on record opposing a fast-tracked approval process for Keystone, at least for now.
Even if approved, the vote would be inconsequential. The White House threatened to veto a Keystone bill within hours of the House gaveling in Tuesday.
Minnesota Rep. John Kline said this is how Republicans plan to run Congress during the first few table-setting weeks of the session: approve bills the Republican-controlled House had previously passed, and finally give a GOP-controlled Senate a chance to do the same.
“I think you’ll see that model from Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell, where there are some things we already know there’s traction and bipartisan support and we want to move that, and the others will go down the old fashioned [way],” he said.
Minnesotans push their issues
Some of Minnesota’s members are already taking steps to move their legislative priorities.
Paulsen reintroduced his bill repealing the ACA’s tax on medical device manufacturers this week. When the House passed Paulsen’s bill in 2012, it secured 270 votes on the floor, including all eight from the Minnesota delegation. The Senate never took up a final bill, and Democrats cited concerns with the way the tax’s $29 billion in revenue was made up for by cutting certain health care subsidies under the ACA. The Senate did pass a non-binding resolution supporting a device tax repeal last year, and Paulsen said Republicans would look to bring the bill up within the next few months.
“I think all those issues are going to lead to economic growth and opportunities for people,” he said. “What we should be focusing on is everything should be looked at through the lens of job creation, improving the economy, creating a healthier economy.”
Democratic Rep. Tim Walz will re-introduce a bill designed to prevent suicide among veterans. The House passed the bill unanimously in the lame duck session, but now-retired Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) blocked it in the Senate, citing the bill’s $22 million price tag.
“We’ve got guarantees from everyone up to the Speaker that we can get that through,” Walz said.
Big political battles ahead
Then the battles start.
Lawmakers will need to fund the Department of Homeland Security next month, and Republicans have promised to tie funding to some type of legislative response to President Obama’s immigration executive action.
The limit on federal debt is due to be increased this year, and Republicans have already indicated they’ll target a reduction in federal spending as a condition for raising the cap.
“For the first time in a very long time, we’ve got a Senate Republican party whose votes count,” Kline said. “I think the old analogy is they’re firing real bullets now. I suspect they’re going to take their actions seriously and try to get legislation that matches their principles, matches our principles, and that can move.”
But on Tuesday, as Congress gaveled in, lawmakers in both parties say they’ll weather those storms, and try to find common ground elsewhere. Kline thinks a No Child Left Behind overhaul could be signed into law this session. Walz said he hopes they can agree on ways to fund transportation projects over the long-term. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, bouncing between swearing-in parties for senators on Tuesday afternoon, said a strengthening economy should give lawmakers more leeway to work together.
“We have an opportunity, we have a very significant moment in time, for the next year before the presidential [election] really starts, we have an entire year to govern not from a crisis, but to govern from opportunity,” she said.
Keeping in mind lawmakers’ success rate over the last four or so years, pessimism for the 114th Congress might be well warranted. But on Day One in Washington, at least, optimism reigned.
“I suspect you’re going to have votes that are more partisan, of course that’s going to happen, they always do,” Klobuchar said. “They’ll make their points, we’ll make some points, but then, can we make a difference by passing some of these broader bills?”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry