(Bloomberg) — Mitch McConnell must balance twin goals as the new majority-Republican U.S. Senate convenes tomorrow: pushing through legislation to please the party’s base without harming members who will seek re-election — or the presidency – - in 2016.
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Republicans get to set the Senate agenda for the first time in eight years. Yet their new 54-46 balance of power still contains the recipe for past gridlock, with too few votes to overcome united Democratic opposition or vetoes by President Barack Obama and plenty of members eager for a fight.
McConnell will give Republicans what they want, first with a vote to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline after a committee vote planned for Thursday. Obama hasn’t said whether he will sign or veto Keystone legislation, and a pending Nebraska court ruling has put the project in limbo.
McConnell also will try to curb Obama’s energy and environmental regulations, chip away at the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) — “Obamacare” — and block the president’s order easing deportation for undocumented immigrants.
Amid the partisan tussles are a handful of issues where McConnell and the president can find common ground, mainly trade agreements with the Pacific region and Europe that many of Obama’s fellow Democrats have opposed, and fast-track authority that would give trade deals an up-or-down vote in the Senate.
“He goes into a more difficult election cycle” in 2016, said New York-based pollster John Zogby. “He has to show some results and can at least pick some low-hanging fruit by supporting free trade, corporate tax cuts and some elements of the president’s military budget.”
Revamping the corporate tax system still may be difficult. While there’s ample agreement between the parties on reducing the corporate rate, incoming Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah said lawmakers haven’t “even scratched the surface on the degree of difficulty we face” in rewriting tax laws.
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All the while, McConnell’s eyes will be on the 2016 election as he seeks to avoid losing the majority back to the Democrats after just two years. Republicans must defend 22 Senate seats compared with nine for Democrats, a reversal from the past two elections when significantly more Democratic seats were on the ballot.
“The math is almost entirely flipped,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who now becomes minority leader. “That’s partly what Senator McConnell is going to have to juggle.”
Republicans won nine Democratic-held seats. They’ll need support from at least six Democrats to pass major legislation — similar to the situation that stymied Democrats when they were in power.
McConnell, 72, of Kentucky will be scheduling votes on measures Republicans have wanted to pass for years. Such votes may help at least four Senate Republicans who say they are considering presidential campaigns: Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ted Cruz of Texas.
“I have no problem with people’s ambitions,” McConnell told reporters the day after the election. “I think we can accommodate that and still make progress for the country.”
Manley predicted “a race to the right” by presidential contenders in the Senate.
“That doesn’t bode well for any Senate Republican up for re-election in 2016 that’s trying to smooth out the rough edges of the Republican Party,” he said.
Cruz infuriated fellow Republicans in December by keeping the Senate in Washington for a Saturday session on Dec. 13 so he could protest members’ decision not to immediately try to block Obama’s immigration orders. Democrats took advantage of the extra time to confirm dozens of presidential nominees they otherwise may not have had time to address.
Cruz’s effort blindsided McConnell and showed how tricky it will be for the new majority leader to run the Senate.
Such moves may make life more difficult for moderate Republicans such as first-term Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, who is up for re-election in 2016. His seat is one of seven that Republicans will defend next year in states Obama won in 2008 and 2012.
Under the Democratic majority, Kirk was one of the few Republicans willing to support such proposals as stronger background checks for gun purchasers. That stance plays well in Illinois, which has some of the strictest gun laws in the country and hasn’t supported a Republican presidential candidate since 1988.