5 Reasons Republicans Taking Over Congress Shouldn't Celebrate Just Yet

Conservatives may want to hold off on spiking that football or practicing victory dances.

John Boehner, Barack Obama, and Mitch McConnell. (Photo: Larry Downing/Reuters)

Jan 5, 2015· 2 MIN READ

Andrea Stone has covered national news, politics, the Pentagon, Capitol Hill and foreign affairs for USA Today, The Huffington Post and AOL News, reporting from 47 states and 26 countries. She helped launch Al Jazeera America's website and now writes for National Geographic, Smithsonian and other outlets.

When the 114th Congress convenes on Tuesday, it will mark the first time since 2006 that Republicans control both sides of Capitol Hill.

But even as the new lawmakers are sworn in, the Democrat presiding at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue has made clear he will press his agenda until the day he leaves office two years from now.

"When the American people elect divided government, they're not saying they don't want anything done," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said over the weekend in a nod that he was open to compromise with President Barack Obama. Yet in the same interview, McConnell said his caucus would “be voting on things I know he's not going to like.”

Nor the president’s fellow Democrats. The GOP may have 54 seats in the Senate, but it takes 60 votes to end a filibuster and pass legislation. McConnell will need at least a few Democratic votes to pass anything.

Having control of both chambers doesn't necessarily mean having the ability to get things into law,” said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. “It’s fair to say the next two years are not going to be the most productive in Congress. The last two years of a presidency usually doesn’t produce much in the way of domestic legislation.”

Which is not to say the GOP doesn’t have an ambitious to-do list:

Keystone XL Oil Pipeline This may be the first bill McConnell pushes through, but he’s unlikely to get the two-thirds majority he needs to prevent Obama, who has wielded the veto pen fewer times than nearly any president, from killing it as promised.

Obamacare After futile efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act more than 50 times, House Republicans and their Senate colleagues will try to chip away at the president's signature health care legislation instead. Look for bills that would change the definition of full-time work from 30 to 40 hours a week to allow employers to provide health coverage to fewer employees, as well as repeal of a tax on medical devices.

Net Neutrality Conservatives hope to roll back what they see as regulatory overreach on broadband Internet by the Obama administration’s Federal Communications Commission. The president has framed his side of the debate as the need to protect equality for various businesses on the Internet, instead of letting major corporations pay for better access to the second screen.

Immigration Look for conservatives to push back, possibly through funding for the Department of Homeland Security, against the president’s executive action to protect up to 5 million people from deportation and offer a way to come out from the shadows to work legally.

“The trick for Republicans is that they have to pass substantive pieces of legislation that will actually be signed by the president so that, in two years, they are not called the ‘do-nothing Congress’ again. This could help the Democratic presidential nominee and maybe Democrats running for Senate,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

“At the same time,” he added, “the GOP Congress must pass veto bait. Why? They want to keep the Republican base energized, and the base expects them to do battle with Obama on health care, immigration, and loads of other topics. This is quite a balancing act for [Speaker of the House John] Boehner and McConnell.”

Balance or, by another name, gridlock.

“Both sides might complain about gridlock, but there isn’t really an incentive for both sides to work together,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of The Rothenberg Political Report.

After all, 2016 is now next year. Unlike the last election cycle, twice as many Republican Senate seats as Democratic ones will be up for grabs, many of them in blue or purple states such as Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire. So the new minority party can afford to wait it out.

Not that Democrats are the biggest concern for Republican leaders, mind you.

“The biggest challenges for the Republican Party is that Republicans have to agree with Republicans on how they want to move forward in the next Congress,” Gonzales said. “There’s a part of the caucus interested in demonstrating a level of responsibility in being proactive with the legislative agenda, and then there is a part of the caucus more interested in holding the president's feet to the fire.”