What to Expect From the 114th Congress

Personally, I'm not holding my breath waiting for rousing choruses of "Kumbaya" to be echoing through the Capitol any time soon.
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As dawn metaphorically breaks over the new 114th Congress, the inside-the-Beltway punditocracy is going through one of their periodic bouts of self-delusion over how wonderfully everyone is going to get along for the next two years. Sanity and comity will reign supreme on Capitol Hill, they blithely predict, and all kinds of stuff will get accomplished. The only real question is which side of the aisle will be signing melody and which will be harmonizing, as everyone joins in a rousing chorus of "Kumbaya." You'll have to forgive me for not being so easily convinced, mostly because I can accurately remember back past roughly two weeks ago, which seems to be the attention span for some of these pontificators.

I mean, not to sound overly cynical or anything, but I just don't see a wonderful future of legislative miracles being produced on a regular basis any time soon. Perhaps we'll get through an entire year without either the debt ceiling or the federal budget being held hostage by the Tea Partiers, but then again perhaps we won't. Even if we do, is that really all that much cause for celebration? The 114th Congress might be marginally more productive than the 113th Congress was, but that bar is set so low it'd actually be downright astonishing if they didn't manage to achieve a better track record than that of the last two years.

To be scrupulously fair here, both Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seem like their hearts are in the right place. They're both talking up the chances of things getting done, and I believe they're both being sincere. Boehner is already showing more muscle when it comes to shutting the Tea Party out of important committees and leadership positions than he showed the last time around, which likely means he's learned his lesson over the last two years. McConnell knows full well that he'll have to get a handful of Democrats to pass anything other than the budget, and as a result is likely to back more moderation in the bills that get written than the House is likely to include. Both men know that the chances of Republicans winning the presidency in 2016 may hinge on what Congress actually produces in the next two years.

While I can afford to give both Boehner and McConnell the benefit of the doubt at this point, the same simply can't be said for the Tea Party faction in both houses. Boehner may have a stronger hand to play since he expanded his House majority (he'll be able to lose more Republican votes and still get bills passed, in other words), but McConnell is going to face the daunting prospect of keeping three presidential wannabes in line: Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. While backbench Tea Partiers in the House can rant and rave without influencing the national debate too much, over in the Senate the media is going to be hanging on every word Paul, Rubio and Cruz have to say over any contentious issue that comes along. McConnell also cannot afford to lose anywhere near as many votes as Boehner will be able to, since his majority is so much slimmer (to say nothing of the problem the filibuster presents).

All legislation that makes it through Congress in the next two years is going to fall into two basic categories: veto-bait and necessary compromise. Republicans will pass any number of bills through the House intended solely to make life difficult for President Obama and Democrats. They'll know full well these bills will never become law, because they'll know full well that none of them will get enough support from Democrats to overturn a presidential veto. They will be nothing more than red meat for the Republican base, and political posturing to improve the party's chances in 2016. That's all fine and good, as this sort of thing has always been part of the American political game. On these bills, both Boehner and McConnell will allow the Tea Partiers to go full steam ahead, secure in the knowledge that the bills will die an unlamented death via either filibuster, conference committee or presidential veto. They will then enjoy a second life as fodder for campaign ads.

Beyond all this posturing will be the serious legislation that Congress must produce. These are the bills on which compromises will have to be reached. On each of them, there may be an initial period where Boehner and McConnell allow the Tea Partiers to fail, before the real bill is introduced. The first of these battles is likely to be over immigration, and the funding of the Homeland Security Department, currently set to run out of money in February. The initial bill to fund the department will likely have some strident anti-Obama language in it, as well as some stridently anti-immigrant measures. It will pass the House handily, but then may be watered down a bit in the Senate. Eventually, some sort of "stick it to the president" bill will arrive on Obama's desk, which he will then unceremoniously veto.

This will be the first test of whether a Republican Congress can truly govern or not. The entire debate will be inane to begin with, since Republicans will be attempting to hold hostage the funding for a department they normally support unquestioningly. How many Republicans are really going to vote to cause a mini-shutdown of the federal government's entire anti-terrorism effort, in the end? After the expected veto of the anti-Obama version of the bill, the real question is going to be whether Boehner and McConnell can forge a compromise acceptable to the White House and some congressional Democrats, without the Tea Partiers going ballistic. This may be indicative of how Congress is going to behave in the next two years, so it will be closely watched.

Of course, Democrats face their own challenges in the upcoming Congress. The Republicans will be trying to pick them off, one by one, to support measures that the Democratic Party as a whole does not. It bears mentioning that Republicans are usually a lot better at doing this sort of thing than Democrats are. But as long as Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi hold together enough of their caucus to defeat any veto override attempts, this may not matter all that much. Because this alone might be enough to force Republican leaders to tone down the worst parts of any must-pass bills that come along. President Obama will be a lot more confident in issuing veto threats if he knows enough congressional Democrats will have his back, to put this another way.

While the fault lines on the Republican side will be waged on ideological lines (with the Tea Party pushing for unrealistic goals versus the Establishment Republicans who honestly do want to govern), there will also be a lesser struggle on the Democratic side of the aisle. In this case, the split will be between corporatist "what's good for Wall Street is always good for America" Democrats (call them "Clinton Democrats," perhaps) and the more populist "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" (whom, sooner or later, might be known as "[Elizabeth] Warren Democrats"). Look for these battles to be fought on budget and tax issues -- we've already had a preview of this in the fight during the lame-duck Congress over weakening banking reforms on trading derivatives. In a strange-bedfellows sort of way, these fights may put the Tea Party and the Democratic populists on the same side, fighting against the corporatists of both parties. Hey, stranger things have happened on Capitol Hill.

There will really be three separate seasons the 114th Congress will travel through during the next two years. The first will be the most frantic, and will last until approximately August. This is when there will be both a flurry of veto-bait bills passed (to reward the Republican base with some red meat), as well as possible background work done on "grand bargain" sorts of bills -- say, on corporate tax reform or infrastructure, perhaps. There'll be a few big political fights during this phase, but likely nothing too radical will become actual law. The second phase of the 114th Congress will begin after the summer break, and will be solely focused on the budget Congress will need to pass for the next fiscal year (which begins in October). This will be an enormous battle, with all factions fighting for their own turf. What emerges is anyone's guess, but it'll likely be the last big budget fight until the 2016 election, so it'll be important.

The third and final phase of the 114th Congress will begin late this year or early next year, and will involve absolutely nothing getting done for a very long period of time, as both parties jockey for position in the all-encompassing presidential election. Look for lots of political posturing in the bills proposed, but very little in the way of laws being signed by President Obama.

What this all adds up to is watching what Congress does very closely over the next two or three months. Call it "the first 100 days" for historical purposes, if you will. Because it is likely that if anything does get done -- if the two sides can actually find some common ground, even on relatively small-bore issues -- this is when it will either happen (or, at the very least, this is when the framework of a compromise will begin to emerge).

Personally, I'm not holding my breath waiting for rousing choruses of "Kumbaya" to be echoing through the Capitol any time soon. I think the factions within the Republican Party (especially in the Senate, where three prominent Republicans will be running for president) are going to be tough enough to keep together, even before Democrats are considered in the equation. The bills I'll be personally watching very closely are the ones meant to go nowhere -- the veto-bait. Because my cynical prediction is that even these "red meat for the base" bills are going to be a lot harder for Republicans to pass than they may now imagine. I think the fault lines between the Tea Party ("It doesn't go far enough!") and the Establishment Republicans ("This is the best deal we can get!") are going to be wide enough to prevent much movement on anything. A lot of heat and noise will get generated, but few bills will actually pass both houses. Just look at the struggles John Boehner has had over the past two years within his own caucus (including a track record of zero action on immigration and zero action on any replacement for Obamacare) to see what probably lies ahead. No matter how much optimism the inside-the-Beltway set now seems to be exhibiting, the chances for meaningful legislative progress seem mighty slim indeed.

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