Guest Opinion: Congress faces internal divisions

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jan. 4
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The 115th Congress began its work Tuesday, less than three weeks in advance of the inauguration of Donald Trump on Jan. 20. Republicans hold a 52-seat majority in the Senate, over the 46 Democrats and two independents who generally caucus with them. Republicans hold a larger majority in the House of Representatives, with 241 seats, to 194 Democrats. Thus, with the White House in GOP hands, the Republicans will stand in a strong position to be able to make changes and to put forward a coherent agenda for the future.

The only major leadership changes in Congress will be Sen. Chuck Schumer, Democrat from New York, succeeding Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada as Senate minority leader. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will continue as Senate majority leader but will find himself in an entirely different role from that which he played when Barack Obama was president — he had vowed to do everything he could to derail Obama’s programs. Vice President Mike Pence will succeed Vice President Joe Biden as president of the Senate on Jan. 20.

Items high on the Republican agenda include repeal of Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act, which they have sought for ages. Trump’s indication that he wants to keep pieces of the program, including coverage of pre-existing conditions and retention of young people in their parents’ coverage until age 26, will require replacement legislation for ACA, not simple repeal.

Other key items will include changes to Obama’s climate change measures, consideration of Trump’s nomination to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last February, which left the court with an even number of justices, and confirmation hearings for Trump’s many Cabinet nominations. In a politically surprising move, House Republicans started off Monday by voting in a secret session to strip the powers of the Office of Congressional Ethics. The legion of critics Tuesday included Trump, who ran for president pledging to “drain the swamp,” and the Republicans quickly withdrew the measure.

The Democrats are still clearly in a pickle. They are seeking to decide whether to take the same approach to Trump as president as the Republicans took to Obama, seeking to sabotage the new president’s initiatives, or to respond to some of the American public’s clear desire to see destructive partisan gridlock diminish in Washington, in the public interest.

The Republicans start out well, in control of the White House and both houses of Congress. At the same time, potential cleavages loom ahead for them, particularly between those who will want to launch new programs — which will require money — and the budget hawks of the party, who will be alarmed and may dig in against a national debt that will soon pass $20 trillion and require their approval of an increase in the debt limit.

The Washington balance of political forces has changed, with Republicans now firmly in the catbird’s seat. It will be interesting to see the working relationships that will emerge.