The new Congress: Nine things to know

By Matthew Cooper

November 6, 2012

For all that talk of voter anger, things look pretty much the same as they did 24 hours ago.

Congress is still the same bundle of dysfunction and dyspepsia that it was on Tuesday.

The turnover of what looks to be a miniscule number of Senate and House seats—mere puddles compared with the tea party tsunami of 2010—hasn’t been enough to change Capitol Hill.

Congress remains a bicameral body of stall and crawl: a House dominated by conservatives and a Senate held hostage by the filibuster.

In the weeks to come, National Journal Daily will track the most important bills and leadership moves—who snags committee chairs, which bills move forward and which stall, and, of course, that mess called the fiscal cliff. For now, here are nine things to know:

1. Senate committee changes will be modest. With the Democrats poised to keep Senate control, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia still has the tiller at Energy and Commerce and Max Baucus of Montana at Finance. The one ranking member to watch is at Senate Environment and Public Works, where James Inhofe of Oklahoma is term limited. His likely replacement, David Vitter of Louisiana, hasn’t been the same outspoken skeptic of man-made climate change, but he is likely to back the same pro-industry policies. Big turnover isn’t afoot, which means the same staffers, members, and issues as in the last Congress.

2. House committee changes will appear bigger than they are. Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama giving up the chair of the House Financial Services Committee to his likely replacement, Jeb Hensarling of Texas, isn’t going to lead to much of a change as Republicans try to chip away at Dodd-Frank—something that’ll be pretty tough to get past the Senate. Rep. Maxine Waters of California, the likely ranking member, isn’t going to deviate from Barney Frank’s adamant defense of his law.

3. The filibuster will still be here. The use of the filibuster—the parliamentary procedure that forces votes to pass a 60-vote threshold in the Senate—didn’t go away with Tuesday’s election. In the minority, Republicans have used it promiscuously—accelerating a growing trend in both parties, which have transformed this break-glass-in-case-of-emergency tool into one for everyday use. That means whoever is in the minority has ample firepower to shoot down the other side’s most-favored legislation. And there’s no sign that Republicans will be chastened.

4. That doesn’t mean nothing will get done. After all, Congress is neurotic, but it’s not suicidal. The fiscal cliff will be bridged with  Kleenex and duct tape and chicken wire, at least past the inaugural. There may be 48 hours where tax rates go up and are quickly rescinded. But the basic ebb and flow of Congress is where we left it when the members took their last vacation.

5. Watch tax reform. Tax reform is still on the table in a big way. It’s the only way all sides can punt on the fiscal cliff with a straight face and, at the same time, try to do something everyone can agree on. Of course, 2013 isn’t 1986. The problems are harder; the parties are more divided. (In 1986, you had Democrats in the Senate like Russell Long and Republicans like Bob Packwood. We’re in a different world now.)

6. Get to know Joe Donnelly. When a candidate wins in hostile terrain or exceeds expectations, it’s a big deal. Donnelly slew his GOP opponent Richard Mourdock in Indiana’s Senate race. And watch Sens.-elect Ted Cruz of Texas and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who will be stars from Day One.

7. Presidents make their mandates. In 2001, George W. Bush was sworn in without winning the popular vote, but it didn’t make him shy about pushing through an ambitious agenda of tax cuts, education reforms, and (later) fighting two wars. After Inauguration Day, the president could tread lightly given a relatively small victory, but he’s just as likely to throw long, which is why no one should be surprised by wild new initiatives—say a reorganization of federal agencies or tax reform.

8. Rethinking who’s vulnerable. This was supposed to be the GOP’s year to take back the Senate, to knock off that upstart Democratic class of ’06. But Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar was never in danger, Missouri’s Claire McCaskill was likely saved by the “legitimate rape” comments of her opponent, and other Democrats from the class proved more tenacious than expected, though some seats that seemed easy to hold—such as Connecticut’s—proved wobbly. In this kind of atmosphere, there’s going to be a lot of soul-searching at the National Republican Senatorial Committee and worry among incumbents up in 2014.

9. The freshmen are still feisty. The freshman class of House Republicans has never been a monolith. It has first-time pols and pros, accommodationists and firebrands. But the class still has a size and coherence that will drive Washington and the coming fights over the fiscal cliff and the post-inaugural agenda. These Republicans may have swallowed a budget extension through an anticlimactic election. Don’t think they’ll be as quiet in 2013.

By Matthew Cooper

November 6, 2012