Obama's policies in peril, with Congress to convene today

"This is no time for hubris," said Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader. "You have to perform."
"This is no time for hubris," said Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader. "You have to perform."PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Most powerful Republican-led Congress in 20 years has plans to push partisan goals

WASHINGTON • The most powerful and ambitious Republican-led US Congress in 20 years will convene today.

It will have plans to leave its mark on virtually every facet of American life - refashioning the country's social safety net, wiping out scores of labour and environmental regulations and unravelling some of the most significant policy prescriptions put forward by the administration of President Barack Obama.

Even before President-elect Donald Trump is sworn in on Jan 20, giving their party full control of the government, Republicans plan quick action on several of their top priorities - most notably a measure to clear a path for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare.

Perhaps the first thing that will happen is the push for deregulation. Also up early: filling a long- vacant Supreme Court seat, which is sure to set off a showdown, and starting confirmation hearings for Mr Trump's Cabinet nominees.

"It's a big job to actually have responsibility and produce results," said Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader. "And we intend to do it."

But as Republicans plan to reserve the first 100 days of Congress for their more partisan goals, Democrats are preparing roadblocks. The party's brutal election-year wounds have been salted by evidence of Russian election interference, Mr Trump's hardline Cabinet picks and his taunting Twitter posts. Last Saturday, he offered New Year wishes "to all", including "those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don't know what to do".

Obstacles will also come from Republicans, who are divided on how to proceed with the healthcare law and a pledge to rewrite the tax code.

Some are also skittish about certain policy proposals, like vast changes to Medicare, that could prove unpopular among the broad electorate. And any burst of legislative action will come only if Congress can break free of its longstanding tendency towards gridlock.

For Republicans, the path to this moment has been long and transparently paved - the House in particular has signalled the Republican policy vision through Bills it has been passing for years. But many of those measures have gathered dust in the Senate or been doused in veto ink.

The cleft between the two chambers recalls the situation faced by the insurgent House Republican majority in the mid-1990s. House Speaker Newt Gingrich took control with a determined agenda, only to be stymied by the Senate majority leader, Mr Bob Dole, who stacked conservative House Bills like so many fire logs in the back of the Senate chamber.

"They've been given a golden opportunity here," said Mr Trent Lott, the former Republican Senate majority leader.

"But I have watched over the years when one party has had control of the White House and the Senate and the House, and the danger is overplaying your hand. If you go too far like what happened with Obamacare, and you get no support at all from the other side, you have a problem," Mr Lott continued.

"You have to find a way to work with people across the aisle who will work with you."

The tax overhaul and an infrastructure Bill may be two opportunities for bipartisan cooperation - the Senate Finance Committee is already moving in that direction. Still, both issues are expected to remain on the back burner, despite promises to the contrary from Mr Trump's chief of staff Reince Priebus.

The Senate may be narrowly divided, but among the 48 senators in the Democratic caucus are 10 who will stand for re-election in two years in states that voted for Mr Trump. Republicans are counting on their support, at least some of the time.

While Republicans may have a rare chance to open the flow of legislation, the party's leaders are acutely aware of the punishment that Americans have historically delivered in midterm elections when things have not gone well.

"This is no time for hubris," Mr McConnell said. "You have to perform."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 03, 2017, with the headline 'Obama's policies in peril, with Congress to convene today'. Print Edition | Subscribe