Within hours of their party solidifying control of both chambers in the Nov. 4 elections, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) began laying plans for a series of rapid votes. The goal? Show that the Republicans could actually govern and do more than block President Obama’s policies.
First up would be floor action on several delayed measures with bipartisan support – including approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, repealing an unpopular tax on medical devices, and possibly setting a 40-hour threshold for requiring employers to provide health coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
After that, the GOP leadership hoped to return to “regular order” by passing a new budget blueprint through both chambers – something not done in the past five years – followed by enacting a dozen spending bills to fully fund the government in fiscal 2016. McConnell even spoke optimistically about finding common ground with Obama on projects such as new trade pacts and reforming the corporate tax structure.
But in the wake of Obama’s surprise announcement on Wednesday about the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba – including opening an embassy in Havana and ending a 50-year embargo – the political landscape shifted once again as the two parties staked out dramatically different views on the wisdom of that move. Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and others have vowed to block implementation of Obama’s historic rapprochement with the Cuban communist government, while even some senior Democrats condemned the move as appeasement.
“The national security-foreign policy agenda right now is dominating the news,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP political strategist and former congressional communications aide. “However, there’s going to be high expectations that Republicans start pushing through legislation to show they can rack up bipartisan accomplishments.”
Bonjean added, “They’ll have to tackle both national security and domestic policy at the same time, which they’re capable of doing. It’s difficult to determine where the news will go into next year – but they have to keep plowing ahead and planning their agenda, getting it done. In the end, if the president vetoes some of these things, he’s going to be viewed as the obstructionist.”
With the political temperature already near the boiling point over other disputes with international or defense implications, McConnell’s and Boehner’s ambitions for domestic policy initiatives are likely to be crowded out by bruising foreign policy disputes early in the new Congress. Here’s a look at what’s at stake on these key issues:
Cuba. Obama’s pivot on relations with the Castro regime will fuel bitter debate on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail – particularly in the key battleground state of Florida, where many Cuban Americans still bitterly oppose renewed ties. Republicans are certain to portray Obama’s decision as the ultimate in executive overreach; even The Washington Post’s editorial chided the president, “Obama gives the Castro regime in Cuba an undeserved bailout.” And Rubio, a likely presidential candidate and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, will be a strong roadblock to Obama’s ability to get a new ambassador to Cuban confirmed and funding to open a new embassy in Havana.
Immigration. Despite their best efforts, Republicans could not come up with a way to amend the $1.1 trillion fiscal 2015 spending bill to block implementation of Obama’s executive order that could shield up to five million illegal immigrants from deportation. But they haven’t given up. Republicans decided to keep the Dept. of Homeland Security – responsible for implementing the executive order – on a short budget leash until March to buy time for a more effective strategy. Expect to see plenty of GOP maneuvering and votes to somehow derail the new executive order.
War Powers. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10 to 8 last week, along strict party lines, to give Obama new war powers authority to “degrade and destroy” ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But the measure contained the proviso that Obama would have to keep his promise not to deploy ground troops in Iraq and Syria – and that the next president would have to seek renewed authority three years from now.
However, the resolution pushed through by outgoing Chairman Robert Menendez of N.J. was little more than an opening bid in negotiations with the White House on new ground rules for the war effort. Republicans like Sen. John McCain (AZ), Bob Corker (TN) and James Inhofe (OK) want to give the president far more latitude in fighting the terrorists. And since the Republicans will be calling the shots within the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees next year, they are likely to get their way.
Iranian Nuclear Talks. A year-long U.S. effort to negotiate an accord with Iran to dismantle large parts of its nuclear infrastructure fell short of its Nov. 24 deadline and was extended for another seven months. By winning an extension of the talks, Iran was assured it would continue to receive about $700 million a month in relief from international sanctions.
The Obama administration is seeking to sharply limit Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, to extend the time it would take that country to develop a nuclear bomb, in return for easing sanctions against Tehran. But many Republicans and some moderate Democrats don’t trust Iran to keep any deal – and we’re certain to see a continued effort to pass even tougher sanctions to force Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
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