U.S. Capitol file photo

2015’s Policy Battles: Obamacare, Net Neutrality, Keystone, and Surveillance Reform

Congress’s struggles will be familiar, but the balance of power has shifted.

The status quo has shifted, but has it shifted enough to break the gridlock that has gripped Washington for the past four years?

Those bullish on "grand bargains" and "comprehensive reforms" see pieces in place. With Mitch McConnell replacing Harry Reid at the helm of the Senate, the "House passes a bill, which the Senate buries" dynamic of the past two Congresses is over. The blue firewall is broken, and when the flood of bills that have been coming through the Republican-led House will now at least get a full hearing on the Senate floor. And, without control of either floor, congressional Democrats will spend the session almost exclusively on defense.

That does not mean, however, that Republicans now operate a pipeline to passing legislation. They control the Senate, but they don't dominate it: Democrats still have all the votes they need to filibuster any bill or amendment—and there's nothing to suggest they'll be shy about using it. And then there'sveto President Obama's veto power, which is unlikely to be overridden any time soon.

And so, instead of up-and-down votes on stand-alone policy legislation, what's more likely is that any policy changes that come through Congress will do so via the same strategy that lawmakers have employed over the past four years: through add-ons to budgets, debt-ceiling hikes, and the other "must-pass" measures that move through Congress. And the vast majority of policy changes will continue to come from outside of Congress, through Supreme Court rulings and Obama's executive orders.

But regardless of whether gridlock gives sufficiently for anything major to get done, Democrats and Republicans will continue to use hot-button policy issues to drub each other in search of an electoral advantage. Here are key issues they'll be scrapping over.

Health Care

The by-now nearly pro-forma votes to fully repeal Obamacare will continue, but they're for show ponies. The workhouses will be pulling on incremental measures that delay, tweak, or scrap parts of the law that Republicans either find least palatable or most vulnerable. GOP lawmakers are still considering which specific provisions to target, but possible options include eliminating the employer mandate and the medical-device tax, and redefining "full time" as a 40-hour work week, which would weaken the employer mandate. The law requires larger companies to offer insurance to the majority of employees working at least 30 hours per week; Democrats say raising the threshold would cause a significant number of workers to lose their coverage, while Republicans say it would help businesses and stop employers from cutting hours below 30.

But while Congress nibbles around the Affordable Care Act's edges, it's the Supreme Court that holds the most sway over the law. The justices will consider a case that argues that insurance subsidies should not be available on the federal exchange, with a ruling expected in June. If the challengers in King v. Burwell are successful, individuals in the 36 states that declined to set up their own exchanges would lose their financial assistance. That would make coverage unaffordable for up to 99 percent of enrollees in those states, according to a brief from liberal economists. Between 4 million and 5 million people would likely drop their coverage, and the insurance markets in those states would become unstable.

And if the Court does scrap the subsidies, it'll be game-on for health care changes. The subsidy loss will primarily affect Republican-led states, which make up the majority of those that declined to set up their own exchanges. GOP lawmakers will then have to decide whether they want to push for a full repeal, or instead support a legislative answer to the Court decision that would reinstate the subsidies—but only in exchange for major legislative changes.

Outside of Obamacare, Democrats will continue to try to make political hay out of Republican restrictions on abortion and birth control, on both the federal and state levels. The past several years have seen an "unprecedented" number of state antiabortion bills—in 2013, 22 states enacted 70 such measures, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Widespread GOP victories in statehouses in November suggest the trend will continue. But, again, it will be the courts that ultimate decide the laws' fate.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit will hear oral arguments in early January over two provisions in Texas's sweeping antiabortion law passed last summer. And depending on the ruling, advocates on both sides say the case could be elevated to the Supreme Court.


Senate Republicans won't waste any time in getting to a familiar item: A bill forcing approval of the Keystone XL oil-sands pipeline is on tap to be the first bit of business. The bill is all but sure to pass, with GOP majorities in both chambers, but it's unclear if President Obama would veto it. In a December interview, he downplayed the benefits of the pipeline, which could carry heavy crude from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast, while noting that it could contribute to "disastrous" climate change. What policy comes attached to the bill could play a bigger role in determining his reaction. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the pipeline vote will come to the floor with the GOP's long-awaited free-wheeling debate over energy amendments. That opens the door for the Senate to bring up a long list of priorities, including exports of liquefied natural gas and crude oil, limits on EPA's ozone-pollution standards, and blocks to foreign climate aid and to lans to cut carbon emissions from power plants.

Protecting those power-plant standards, which form the tent pole of Obama's climate plan, will be the top priority for Democrats and environmentalists. The administration's final rule for limiting emissions from new power plants is expected in January, while the final standard forexisting power plants—which would require emission cuts of 30 percent of 2005 levels by 2020—is due in July. Refiners and utilities have fought both rules, saying they'll effectively force the closure of coal-fired plants across the country, but the White House has vowed to protect them at all costs. They come with added importance as the U.S. gears up for United Nations climate talks in Paris. Supporters say the administration needs to preserve the toughest emissions rules as the backbone of a climate strategy that gives American negotiators a strong posture at the make-or-break December talks, which could produce a binding global climate deal.


The Federal Communications Commission is expected to finalize its controversial net-neutrality rules in the first few months of 2015. But the battle will extend well beyond that, as Republicans and industry groups try to repeal the new Internet regulations.

Democrats argue that net neutrality—the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally—is critical for ensuring online freedom and competition. But Republicans warn that the regulations will burden businesses and stifle investment. President Obama has urged the FCC to classify Internet providers in the same category as landline phones, essentially treating the Internet like a utility. The move is necessary, Obama said, to enact strong net-neutrality protections that can hold up in court.

Republicans are expected to fast-track a resolution to kill the new rules, but it would face a certain veto from Obama. They may also try to craft their own legislation to address potential Internet abuses without resorting to utility-style regulation. All of the major Internet providers have vowed to sue the FCC if it enacts Obama's plan.

National Security and Privacy

The push for reforms to the National Security Administrations spy/surveillance programs floundered in 2014, but advocates will have new leverage 2015: Core provisions of the the post-9/11 USA Patriot Act are due to sunset on June 1.

That looming deadline is expected to touch off a do-or-die battle between security hawks, who want to maintain the status quo, and privacy advocates and tech companies, who view it as their last best post-Snowden shot to rein in the National Security Agency's domestic spying authority.

If Section 215 of the Patriot Act expires, intelligence agencies will lose considerable surveillance power. That's unlikely to happen, especially with McConnell now running the Senate. McConnell and nearly all of his GOP caucus coalesced in opposition to the USA Freedom Act, which fell two shorts votes of advancing in November, due to concerns that limiting surveillance could bolster terrorist groups such as ISIS and risk American lives.

Led by Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy and Ron Wyden, NSA reformers are cautiously optimistic they can block a clean reauthorization of the Patriot Act and leverage its deadline to punch through some reforms. But any compromise is likely to be less sweeping than the Freedom Act, and it remains unclear if McConnell is willing to budge at all. One wild card? Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who helped killed the Freedom Act, wants to let the Patriot Act die completely. But with a 2016 presidential campaign expected to launch soon, Paul may be less willing to agitate GOP leadership and McConnell, his fellow Kentuckian.