As GOP Takes Over, Major Policy Debates Loom
But first, a day of Republican pomp.
The first day of the new Senate is a field day for photographers and gossip columnists. There is a lot of pomp and tradition and a few housekeeping details to take care of—small things like officially putting the legislative session into motion by agreeing on a date when lawmakers can start introducing bills. And a big one: recognizing Sen. Mitch McConnell as the new majority leader, officially marking the start of a Republican-controlled Congress.
Members are preparing for a widespread energy debate that will be anchored with legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, but the substance of those debates won't begin until later in the week. While all lawmakers say they are anxious to get to the business of writing and haggling, the first day of a new Congress is a day for glad-handing.
On the House side, lawmakers will vote Tuesday to elect a speaker—with incumbent John Boehner expected to retain the post despite a few GOP opponents—and pass a package of rules for the 114th Congress, as Republicans field their largest majority in decades.
But the change will be more pronounced in the Senate, where Vice President Joe Biden will preside over the opening session Tuesday, swearing in 34 new or reelected senators. Among them will be veteran legislators like Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and James Inhofe, R-Okla., as well as newbies like Thom Tillis, a Republican who was previously North Carolina's House speaker, and David Perdue, a Republican from Georgia who has never held elected office. It is not uncommon for a new senator to be accompanied by the senior senator from his or her state or a former senator when being sworn in. There are lots of cute kids roaming the hallways as well.
In a day filled with grandeur about the new bipartisan workings of a body whose past squabbling has crippled its functionality, it is fitting that Democrat Biden will recognize Republican McConnell as majority leader after the swearing-in ceremony. There will be no other formalities to indicate the passing of power from outgoing Majority Leader Harry Reid to McConnell, according to McConnell's staff, but everyone is keenly aware of the significance of the moment. Republicans are ready to dive deeply into policy debates that they say have been missing over the past several years. The first floor request that McConnell makes, a resolution to formally notify the House and the president that the Senate has convened, will mark the beginning of a new era.
With Biden presiding over the opening ceremonies, jocularity isn't far off. Once the new senators' official oaths are taken, they proceed in groups of five to the old Senate chamber for a mock swearing-in. That oath, while not official, is for the benefit of the cameras and the families, and it also allows Biden to show off his charms. In 2013, he offered to help one of Sen. Tim Scott's brothers with firming his biceps. He told many women that their smiles lit up the room. He hugged everyone's mother.
Biden's antics will no doubt amuse those watching the events on C-SPAN, but they probably can't top the surprise appearance of President Clinton in the press gallery on the Senate's opening day in 2007. He was accompanying his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, as she entered her second Senate term as a Democrat from New York. He told reporters in the gallery he was just looking for the nearest bathroom, and he was directed upstairs.
There are other important pieces of business to accomplish on the Senate's first day. The Senate must elect a new president pro tempore, the member who symbolically takes over when Biden isn't present to run day-to-day operations. In reality, the pro-tempore duties are shared among members of the majority party, but the title is important because that person also is the third in line to the presidency, after the vice president and the House speaker. The title of Senate president pro tempore, by tradition, goes to the most senior senator from the majority party. In the last two Congresses, that was Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, but with the shift to a Republican majority, the new president pro tempore will be Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who has been in office since 1977. The election of the president pro tempore typically takes place with a simple resolution and then a separate swearing-in from the vice president.
There is actual housekeeping occurring as well. Newly-elected senators are operating out of several temporary spaces in the Senate office buildings as their offices are being selected and set up. They and their staffers are still finding their way around the maze of underground corridors that link the office buildings to the Capitol. Trying to find them is no small feat either. The Senate.gov website that details office information for each senator won't be updated until after the swearing-in ceremony, according to the Senate library, which helps maintain the site.
With new members officially sworn in and Vice President Biden safely returned to the White House, the new Republican majority in both chambers will begin work on approval of the Keystone pipeline, one of their top priorities for the 114th Congress. And members could face their first presidential veto by the end of the week.
The House is expected to pass the Keystone bill on Friday, marking the 10th time the lower chamber has passed legislation authorizing the pipeline. With a new majority seated, the real action lies in the Senate, where a potentially action-packed floor fight over amendments will offer the first real test for the way the new majority leader hopes to run the Senate.
McConnell has vowed to members on both sides of the aisle that he will empower Senate committees to do their work in regular order and, in his most significant departure from Harry Reid, he will allow amendments from both parties whether they are relevant to the underlying legislation or not.
Keystone will be no different. The Senate Energy Committee on Wednesday will hold a hearing on its own bill, which is similar to the House version, under new Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. The bill is likely to pass through committee easily on Thursday, and McConnell is expected to bring the bill to the floor for debate shortly thereafter.
What follows is expected to be a contentious process. In an interview with The Washington Post, McConnell framed the debate not as one over Keystone alone, but over the nation's energy policy writ large. And Democratic leaders are encouraging their members to use the opportunity to attach a number of clean-energy provisions and increased royalties on big oil companies to the bill.
Given Republicans' new 54-seat majority, the Keystone bill is expected to pass in one form or another, sending the measure to President Obama's desk for a potential veto as early as week's end. Nine Democrats who will take their seats in the 114th Congress on Tuesday voted in favor of the Keystone pipeline in November.
The House will also get started this week in chipping away at the Affordable Care Act, focusing on two proposed reforms to the law that have bipartisan support in both chambers. On Tuesday, the lower chamber will begin work on the Hire More Heroes Act, a bill that allows companies to exempt employees who are receiving veterans' health benefits from their calculations under the Affordable Care Act's employer mandate. That bill passed the House in March with just one "nay" and is expected to make its way to the Senate without trouble.
On Wednesday, the House will move on to legislation changing the health care law's definition of a full-time workweek from 30 hours to 40, a top priority for Republicans in both chambers as well as some Democrats. The legislation also passed the House last spring, but faces much higher chances of a presidential veto. The House will also take up a reauthorization of the federal terrorism risk insurance program, which was allowed to expire Dec. 31 because the House and Senate couldn't agree on a bill.
The Senate's legislative calendar is much lighter, as the new Republican majority gets settled. The party will elect its committee chairs this week, with committee-level votes on Tuesday and Wednesday. The full Republican conference will officially ratify those choices on Thursday. Democrats selected their ranking members back in December.
The chairman-selection process once looked to be contentious, thanks to a gentlemanly battle brewing between Budget Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions and Sen. Michael Enzi of Wyoming, who holds slightly more seniority on the committee than his Alabama counterpart. But Sessions conceded that fight in an early Christmas gift to Enzi, leaving all of the races for chairman uncontested.
Senators will also meet on Wednesday for their weekly lunches, where Republicans will continue to grapple with how to respond to Reid's use of the nuclear option. Members were significantly divided on the question of whether to return to a 60-vote threshold for nominees before they recessed at the end of 2014, and even whether to use the nuclear option to change them—i.e., use a simple 51-vote majority to prevent members from using a simple 51-vote majority to approve of nominees in the future. That isn't an option, McConnell has said, and a spokesman said that if the conference does decide to change the rules back, the new majority leader is "not considering using the nuclear option" to do so.
A second McConnell aide said that timing on a final decision one way or the other remained uncertain as of Monday.
Daniel Newhauser contributed to this article.