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Drama Awaits as Curtain Rises on 114th Congress
By Caitlin Huey-Burns

They’re back — new and, some hope, improved.

Tuesday marks the official start of the 114th Congress, one that will be led entirely by Republicans for the first time in nearly a decade. The GOP now has a 54-46 advantage in the Senate and its biggest majority in the House since 1929. Buoyed and emboldened by big wins at the ballot box last year, Republicans are prepared to push top party priorities right out of the gate, from the Keystone pipeline to Obamacare, while also attempting to show American voters that they can effectively govern.

This endeavor will require some craftsmanship from GOP leaders, especially Mitch McConnell. The new Senate majority leader will need to pick off a handful of Democratic votes to pass most legislation while also uniting Republican members, some of whom have ambitions beyond the upper chamber.

House Speaker John Boehner also faces the continuing challenge of forging compromise within his own conference on certain contentious issues. A Democratic-led Senate is no longer standing in the way of House Republicans, and those GOP lawmakers hope to get more of their priorities to the president’s desk. But Republicans still don’t have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, so the fine, and seemingly lost, art of legislating will be in play.

“I think the message from the American people is they’d like to see a right-of-center, responsible conservative governing majority,” McConnell told CNN. “That’s what the speaker and I tend to provide. And, hopefully, we will have enough followers to do that.”

Boehner faces his first test on Tuesday, when the House decides whether to re-elect him as speaker. The Ohio congressman’s job appears to be safe, but there are already several defections, which point toward a drama-filled first day.

“The new Senate majority leader will need to pick off a handful of Democratic votes to pass most legislation while also uniting Republican members, some of whom have ambitions beyond the upper chamber.”

Democrats aren’t without their own challenges. The party’s ranks have diminished over recent elections, and members are trying to recalibrate after devastating losses in November while bracing for life in the minority for the first time in years. The end of the last session of Congress revealed internal divisions within the party on strategy and policy and brought about new challenges of maintaining relevancy. Democrats stand ready to back the president on vetoes, should he need that support, but they hope to avoid becoming a party of “no,” especially with the 2016 president election and favorable congressional contests in the not-too-distant future.

Speaking of President Obama, the start of the GOP-led Congress also marks the newest test of relations between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Both Obama and McConnell have talked about working together in the last two years of this president’s tenure — tax reform, trade deals and infrastructure projects are considered areas where common ground can be found — as both are thinking about their respective legacies.

But the two men are starting out on different paths. As Congress begins work this week in Washington, Obama is leaving town on a three-state tour to talk about his own agenda items and preview the State of the Union address. The president also appears re-energized from a two-week vacation in Hawaii and rising approval numbers and is ready to strike out on his own.

Indeed, the first days of the new Congress will be eventful. Here are a few items to watch on Capitol Hill this week.

Open for Business

Authorizing the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline is the first order of business for this new Congress. The Senate Energy Committee will take up legislation on Wednesday and is expected to approve it by the end of the week. The full chamber could consider the measure as early as next week. A Keystone bill that failed in the Senate last November had support from 14 Democrats.

McConnell has said he hoped the Keystone bill would give members a chance to debate energy policy and ideas, and Republicans have billed it as a jobs-and-infrastructure package. The House is taking up a similar measure. The White House has not said definitively whether the president would sign the bill or veto it, should it reach his desk. “I’m not prepared at this point to issue a veto threat,” spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday.

Republicans are also planning an Obamacare repeal vote early on in this Congress, along with other measures to chip away at the law. The House is introducing the Save American Workers Act to change the law’s workweek requirements from 30 hours to 40 hours. Proponents of the change say the current law has forced employers to cut workers’ hours to avoid providing mandated coverage. This and other health care law-related concepts, such as repealing the medical device tax, have garnered bipartisan support in the past. The House is also taking up a veterans jobs bill this week that would allow employers to exempt veterans from the employee limits under the Affordable Care Act.

Spending issues are also on the docket. Funding for the Department of Homeland Security runs out at the end of February, and Congressional Republicans are already discussing ways to withhold money for the president’s executive action on immigration. Republicans are also likely to introduce a GOP budget, crafted by incoming Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price of Georgia.

House Democrats are set to introduce an agenda of their own on Tuesday, including a bill aimed at cutting a tax loophole for corporations and another that would prohibit chief executives from claiming certain tax deductions, according to a “Dear Colleagues” memo from Nancy Pelosi.

Foreign policy will also be of interest in this new Congress, with members possibly weighing in on Iran sanctions, Cuba policy and the establishment of an embassy there, and combating the Islamic State, among other things.

Confirmations of nominees for defense secretary (Ashton Carter) and attorney general (Loretta Lynch) also await this new Congress.

Boehner’s Hurdle

Despite campaigning across the country and raising large sums of money for candidates last year, John Boehner yet again faces the threat of revolt within his own party ahead of Tuesday’s leadership election. So far, 10 GOP members have said they would not vote for him as speaker. Louie Gohmert of Texas and Ted Yoho of Florida have launched their own (albeit unlikely) speakership bids. Both have notoriously been thorns in the speaker’s side. Virginia Rep. David Brat, who beat former Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a stunning primary upset last year, is among those planning to vote against the current speaker.

Though Boehner will lose votes (he can afford to lose 29), he is expected to keep his post. Several conservative members are disappointed in him for moving forward with a spending bill at the end of the last session that funded, even just temporarily, Homeland Security. The opponents also say the measure didn’t do enough to hold the president accountable for his controversial executive order on immigration.

Tuesday’s vote, which will be held in public on the House floor and aired on C-SPAN, gives restive members a chance to register their disappointment. Democrats will also be voicing support for or opposition to Pelosi as minority leader, which will be an interesting, if less consequential, vote to watch given recent party loses. Still, the Boehner drama is taking attention away from the GOP’s agenda and message on the first day of the new session.

Republicans are also dealing with the controversy surrounding House Whip Steve Scalise, who apologized last week for speaking at a white supremacists convention in 2002. The Louisiana congressman called the speech “a mistake I regret” and insisted he did not know about the agenda of the group, led by well-known Louisiana politician and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

House leadership and colleagues have rallied behind Scalise, hopeful that the 2002 speech was an anomaly. But Democrats from Capitol Hill to the White House are using the controversy to slam the GOP. “Who they choose to serve in their leadership says a lot about who they are and what their values should be,” said White House Spokesman Josh Earnest.

While Boehner stood by Scalise, he worked to force out New York Rep. Michael Grimm, who recently pleaded guilty to tax fraud. Grimm officially resigned his seat on Monday.

New Faces

The first day of the new session is like the first day of school in many ways. New members inevitably get lost in the grand hallways of the Capitol, re-elected members delight at the return of old friends or lament the absence of others. This session also marks a turnover in party power, with new committee heads, staffs, and offices.

The 114th Congress includes 74 new members (counting three who assumed House seats late in 2014): 13 in the Senate and 61 in the House. Michigan Sen. Gary Peters is the lone Democratic freshman in the Senate, after a favorable year for Republicans.

The Republican class in the Senate includes Iowa’s Joni Ernst, who became famous during the 2014 campaign for her “make them squeal” ad; Cory Gardner, a young congressman who beat incumbent Mark Udall in Colorado; and combat veteran Tom Cotton of Arkansas.

On the House side, 30-year-old Republican Elise Stefanik of New York is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. And Mia Love of Utah is the first African-American woman to be elected as a Republican.

The 114th Congress will be the first without a World War II veteran, as Michigan Democrat John Dingell and Texas Republican Ralph Hall aren’t returning. But other veterans are also increasing their numbers on Capitol Hill, including Arizona Republican Martha McSally, the first woman combat pilot to enter the lower chamber.

Aside from new faces, there are several familiar ones worth watching. Kentucky’s Rand Paul, Florida’s Marco Rubio, and Texas’ Ted Cruz are all considered 2016 presidential contenders, and their moves on Capitol Hill this year will help inform the primary debate.

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