WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama and Republicans who will control Congress next year are probing for ways to thaw the political deep freeze in Washington.
Obama has just two years left to shape his presidential legacy and said he saw openings for cooperation. So did Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell who will likely take over leadership in the Senate after the president and his Democrats suffered a huge setback in Tuesday’s midterm congressional elections.
The question: Can Obama reach compromises with McConnell and House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, who both have many rightwing Republican members in the Senate and House determined to stymie everything Obama proposes.
Republicans’ resounding victory gives them an opportunity to push legislation that’s been bottled up in the Democratic Senate, from repealing Obama’s health care law to constructing the Keystone XL oil pipeline to rolling back environmental regulations.
Republicans will control the Senate and work with a widely expanded majority in the House in the next Congress, and say they must show they can govern, otherwise voters will undo those majorities in elections in 2016.
“We now have the votes and we have the ability to call the agenda, so stop name-calling and let’s actually produce some legislation that helps jobs and the economy and moves our country forward,” Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz said in an interview. “I think the country has figured that out and they’ve given us the mandate to do it and we better produce, or they’ll kick us out too.”
House Republicans are counting on McConnell to move ahead on the dozens of jobs bills that the House has passed but remain stalled in the Senate. They also are counting on a swift vote early next year on building the Keystone XL pipeline to carry crude oil from Canada to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast now that Republicans clearly have the numbers in the Senate.
Once all ballots are counted, the Republican Party could have as many as 54 Senate seats if Republican Dan Sullivan prevails in Alaska and the party wins a Dec. 6 runoff in Louisiana. The House majority could reach historic levels of 250 out of 435 seats.
For his part, McConnell signaled on Wednesday that he could work with Obama on trade agreements and a tax overhaul as both sides look toward governing rather than gridlock.
It won’t be easy.
Many of the moderate Democrats who would be willing to compromise were defeated in Tuesday’s elections, reducing the number of lawmakers in the middle. In the next Congress, independent Sen. Angus King of Maine and moderate Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Jon Tester of Montana will hold considerable leverage.
Republicans will be under pressure from many in their ranks and outside conservatives to repeal Obama’s signature health care law, but McConnell and the more pragmatic Republican lawmakers acknowledge that it is next to impossible as long as the president, who has veto power, remains in the White House.
“If I had the ability, obviously, I’d get rid of it,” McConnell said of the Affordable Care Act as he spoke to reporters at a news conference in Kentucky. “Obviously, it’s also true he’s still there.”
McConnell indicated that the Republicans would push for undermining the law by repealing a tax on medical devices, which has some Democratic support, and target the requirement that individuals sign up for health insurance or face a penalty.
Obama told reporters that ending the individual mandate was a nonstarter, calling it a “line I can’t cross” because it would unravel the law.
Further complicating the relationship between Obama and the newly empowered Republicans is the president’s vow to act unilaterally before year’s end to reduce the number of deportations and grant work permits to millions of immigrants illegally in the United States.
“What I’m not going to do is just wait,” the president said as bipartisan, comprehensive immigration legislation that the Senate passed in June 2013 remained stalled in the House.
McConnell and other Republicans said such a step would be an in-your-face to the new Republican majority — “like waving a red flag in front of a bull,” McConnell said — and Republicans would use the spending bills to restrict or stop such executive action.
On energy, McConnell was already exploring ways to derail Obama’s plans to reduce the pollution blamed for climate change from coal-fired power plants, a maneuver that some Democrats from coal states are likely to support but that the president would likely veto.
Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, home to vast untapped oil reserves, is expected to chair the Senate Energy Committee, and Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, who rejects the scientific consensus that global warming is being caused by fossil fuels, will likely lead the environment panel.
The Senate turnover from Democrats to Republicans could also complicate efforts by the U.S. to broker a new international deal to curb global warming that is legally enforceable, because a Republican-controlled Senate would be unlikely to ratify it.
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Dina Cappiello, Erica Werner and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.
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