The Wall Street Journal - GOP Weighs How to Flex New Muscle

News Article

Date: Nov. 9, 2014
Location: Washington, DC

By Kristina Peterson and Siobhan Hughes

Lawmakers assembling this week for the first time since the GOP's decisive midterm-election wins face their latest, looming budget challenge: keeping the government running after its funding expires in mid-December.

Republicans won't take control of the Senate until next year, but the lame-duck session before that will offer the first test of how assertive they will be in exercising their expanded leverage. Already new dynamics are on display, with Republicans warning that President Barack Obama would forgo any chances of cooperation by taking immigration steps on his own or pressing for an immediate vote on his attorney general nominee.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), expected to be elected the next majority leader, already has vowed the GOP will eschew the kind of brinkmanship that helped shutter the government in last year's budget showdown with the White House. One way forward would be a spending measure under negotiation between the House and Senate to keep the government funded through next September, the end of the fiscal year.

"If the president really is serious about acting unilaterally on immigration, then it may be that we need to keep short-term funding mechanisms available to us in order to fight back," said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R., S.C.).

Mr. Mulvaney said he had been agnostic about whether to pass a short-term funding bill after the interim measure expires on Dec. 11, but that his thinking had changed after Mr. Obama reiterated his intent last week to move forward later this year with an executive action shielding more illegal immigrants from deportation.

"We didn't think he would be so cavalier about acting unilaterally, given the outcome of the elections, and we are looking at what tools are available to counterbalance that," Mr. Mulvaney said.

Mr. Obama, for his part, has said lawmakers could supercede anything he does by passing legislation, and he has said the House had ample opportunity to act on an immigration overhaul passed by the Senate. Most observers expect a White House announcement on immigration after the spending legislation clears Congress, so that the spending bill doesn't get tangled up in the fraught political issue.

It is unclear how many other Republicans will lobby their leaders to pick a fight before this year's spending deadline or pass a short-term bill that extends into early 2015, when they will assume control of both chambers. House GOP leaders plan to discuss options with their rank-and-file at closed-door meetings this week.

Top Republicans in both chambers see advantages to extending the spending bill through September, the final stretch of a two-year bipartisan budget deal setting the overall spending level, according to lawmakers and GOP aides. That would enable the GOP to start the new Congress by focusing on its own priorities, such as approving the Keystone XL pipeline and forging changes to the Affordable Care Act.

And some Republicans see the end of that two-year budget deal as a good time to begin putting a more conservative stamp on the government's spending blueprint.

"There are certainly Republicans very open to doing a [spending bill] through the end of the fiscal year, depending on what's attached to it," said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.

Rep. Rob Woodall (R., Ga.), currently head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, agreed that it would be better to complete work on a fiscal 2015 spending bill in the lame-duck session, because the next Congress will have only a short window before the 2016 presidential campaign begins to affect congressional negotiations.

"Maybe we'll get eight months before presidential politics permeate action--I don't want to waste those eight months working on last year's business," Mr. Woodall said.

Senate Democrats also favor a spending bill that would run through the end of the fiscal year, aides said, as their leverage will only diminish next year.

The House and Senate appropriations committees already are working on an omnibus bill, which would bundle 12 individual spending bills at the overall $1.014 trillion annual level set in the bipartisan budget deal reached by Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.).

"So far, Republican leadership has indicated they will continue to push aside the tea party and protect our economy from unnecessary artificial crises--and I hope they can stick to that," Ms. Murray said in a statement.

Republicans also have said that any attempts to push through confirmation this year of Loretta Lynch, whom Mr. Obama nominated on Saturday as the next attorney general, would diminish the prospects for cooperation. "What the president decides to do over the next two months sets the tone for the next two years," Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, said on Fox News Sunday.

The White House doesn't appear to be pushing for confirmation of Ms. Lynch during the lame-duck session, and Senate Democrats seem likely to wait until the next Congress for a vote, though the topic is being discussed, according to a Senate Democratic aide.

Lawmakers will also have to tackle a host of other issues. These include a string of expired tax provisions and an annual defense policy bill--which could get bogged down by thorny foreign-policy questions--as well as extensions of the federal backstop for terrorism insurance and a moratorium on Internet access taxes.