Start the countdown clock on a momentous two weeks for President Donald Trump and the GOP-run Congress.
Republicans are determined to deliver the first revamp of the nation’s tax code in three decades and prove they can govern after their failure to dismantle Barack Obama’s health care law this past summer. Voters who will decide which party holds the majority in next year’s midterms elections are watching.
Republicans are negotiating with Democrats on the contentious issue of how much the government should spend on the military and domestic agencies to avert a holiday shutdown. An extension of the program that provides low-cost health care to more than 8 million children and aid to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida need to be addressed. And further complicating the end-of-year talks is the fate of some 800,000 young immigrants here illegally.
Lawmakers are trying to get it all done by Dec. 22.
A look at the crowded agenda:
Republicans are upbeat about finalizing a tax bill from the House and Senate versions for Trump’s first major legislative accomplishment in nearly 11 months in office.
“I feel very confident we’re going to get this done … at the end of the day we’re going to get this to the president’s desk and he’s going to sign it,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Sunday in an interview on Fox News Channel.
The House and Senate bills would cut taxes by about $1.5 trillion over the next decade while adding billions to the $20 trillion deficit. They combine steep tax cuts for corporations with more modest reductions for most individuals.
Republican leaders have struggled to placate GOP lawmakers from high-tax states like California, New York and New Jersey whose constituents would be hit hard by the elimination of the prized federal deduction for state and local taxes. Repeal of the deduction added up to $1.3 trillion in revenue over a decade that could be used for deep tax cuts.
Lawmakers finally settled on a compromise in both bills — full repeal of the state and local deductions for income and sales taxes, but homeowners would be able to deduct up to $10,000 in local property taxes.
And yet it’s still not a done deal.
“There’s a lot of conversation around the fact that in some of the blue states where the taxes are high, the property tax alone, they will not be able to use the $10,000 possible deductions,” Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said on NBC’s “Meet the Press with Chuck Todd” on Sunday. “So allowing for income and property taxes, which would cost another $100 billion by the way, to be options for folks in those states would be a better solution. And we’re looking at ways to make that happen.”
Just a few weeks ago, lawmakers were unyielding on their insistence that the corporate tax rate be slashed from 35 percent to 20 percent. Now, one way to finance the changes on state and local taxes would be to cut the corporate tax rate to 21 or 22 percent instead.
Republicans and Democrats are trying to work out a sweeping budget deal. They got a temporary reprieve from a partial government shutdown when they passed a stopgap, two-week bill last Thursday.
Republicans want a major boost in defense spending. Democrats want a similar increase for domestic agencies.
Congress also has to figure out how much disaster aid should be directed to Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida. The Trump administration requested $44 billion last month, an amount lawmakers from hurricane-slammed regions say is insufficient. The latest request would bring the total appropriated for disaster relief this fall to close to $100 billion — and the government still must calculate how much it will cost to rebuild Puerto Rico’s devastated housing stock and electric grid.
Fresh federal money for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP, ran out on Oct. 1, a blow to the widely popular program that provides low-cost medical care to more than 8 million children. Some states have relied on unspent funds, while others that were running out of money got a short-term reprieve in the two-week spending bill.
Lawmakers hope to agree on a long-term budget solution for a program that’s about $14 billion a year.
Democrats want to act now to protect young immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children, with demands that a solution is included in any year-end spending deal.
“We will not leave here without a DACA fix,” said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
These young immigrants, often referred to as Dreamers, face deportation in a few months after Trump reversed administrative protections established by President Barack Obama.
Republicans say it can wait till next year and shouldn’t bog down the broad budget agreement. However, House GOP leaders likely will require Democratic votes for the spending bill and they have to work out a deal with Pelosi.
Associated Press writers Marcy Gordon and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.
Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, Vietnam prisoner of war and political maverick in Congress for more than three decades, has been diagnosed with an aggressive type of brain tumor.
The 80-year-old Arizona lawmaker has glioblastoma, according to doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, where McCain had a blood clot removed from above his left eye last Friday. He and his family are considering further treatment, including chemotherapy and radiation.
“Subsequent tissue pathology revealed that a primary brain tumor known as a glioblastoma was associated with the blood clot,” his office said in a statement late Wednesday.
According to the American Brain Tumor Association, more than 12,000 people a year are diagnosed with glioblastoma, the same type of tumor that struck McCain’s close Democratic colleague in legislative battles, the late Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. The American Cancer Society puts the five-year survival rate for patients over 55 at about 4 percent.
The senator and chairman of the Armed Services Committee had been recovering at his Arizona home. His absence forced Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to delay action on health care legislation.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said he spoke to McCain Wednesday evening and he said: “Yeah, I’m going to have to stay here a little bit longer, take some treatments. I’ll be back.”
In a statement on Twitter, his daughter, Meghan McCain, spoke of the shock of the news and the anxiety over what happens next. “My love for my father is boundless and like any daughter I cannot and do not wish to be in a world without him. I have faith that those days remain far away,” she said.
As word spread of his diagnosis, presidents past and present along with McCain’s current and former Senate colleagues offered support in an outpouring rarely seen in Washington.
“Senator John McCain has always been a fighter. Melania and I send our thoughts and prayers to Senator McCain, Cindy, and their entire family. Get well soon,” President Donald Trump said.
Barack Obama, who dashed McCain’s dreams of the presidency, said in a tweet: “John McCain is an American hero & one of the bravest fighters I’ve ever known. Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against. Give it hell, John.”
McCain has a lifetime of near-death experiences — surviving the July 1967 fire and explosion on the USS Forrestal that killed 134 sailors; flying into power lines in Spain; the October 1967 shoot-down of his Navy aircraft and fall into Truc Bach Lake in Hanoi; and 5 1/2 years in a North Vietnamese prison.
“The Hanoi Hilton couldn’t break John McCain’s spirit many years ago, so Barbara and I know — with confidence — he and his family will meet this latest battle in his singular life of service with courage and determination,” said former President George H.W. Bush.
Politics aside, McCain and Bill Clinton developed a strong friendship, and the former president said: “As he’s shown his entire life, don’t bet against John McCain. Best wishes to him for a swift recovery.”
In the past, McCain had been treated for melanoma, but a primary tumor is unrelated. Doctors said McCain is recovering from his surgery “amazingly well” and his underlying health is excellent.
With his irascible grin and fighter-pilot moxie, McCain was elected to the Senate from Arizona six times, most recently last year, but twice thwarted in seeking the presidency.
An upstart presidential bid in 2000 didn’t last long. Eight years later, he fought back from the brink of defeat to win the GOP nomination, only to be overpowered by Obama. McCain chose a little-known Alaska governor as his running mate in that race, and helped turn Sarah Palin into a national political figure.
After losing to Obama in an electoral landslide, McCain returned to the Senate, determined not to be defined by a failed presidential campaign. And when Republicans took control of the Senate in 2015, McCain embraced his new job as chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee, eager to play a big role “in defeating the forces of radical Islam that want to destroy America.”
Throughout his long tenure in Congress, McCain has played his role with trademark verve, at one hearing dismissing a protester by calling out, “Get out of here, you low-life scum.”
He tangled with McConnell over campaign finance, joined forces with Democrats on immigration and most recently had a very public spat with Sen. Rand Paul. McCain said the Kentucky Republican was working for Russian President Vladimir Putin after he blocked a vote on allowing Montenegro into NATO. Paul said McCain had gotten “unhinged.”
Early in the 2016 campaign, McCain largely held his tongue when Trump questioned his status as a war hero by saying: “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
McCain stuck by Trump at times seemingly through gritted teeth — until the release a month before the election of a lewd audio in which Trump said he could kiss and grab women. Declaring that the breaking point, McCain withdrew his support.
In an interview with The Associated Press in 2013, McCain spoke of his decades in Congress, legislative achievements and political defeats.
“The last thing I am is bitter and angry. … I’ve had the most full life,” he said. “I would compare my life to anybody that I’ve ever known and it’s been one of great good fortune and I’m grateful every day.”
AP Medical Writer Lauran Neergaard and writers Nancy Benac and Alan Fram contributed to this report.
House Republicans have voted to eviscerate the Office of Congressional Ethics, the independent body created in 2008 to investigate allegations of misconduct by lawmakers after several bribery and corruption scandals sent members to prison.
The ethics change, which prompted an outcry from Democrats and government watchdog groups, is part of a rules package that the full House will vote on Tuesday. The package approved Monday also includes a means for Republican leaders to punish lawmakers if there is a repeat of the Democratic sit-in last summer over gun control.
Under the ethics change pushed by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the non-partisan Office of Congressional Ethics would fall under the control of the House Ethics Committee, which is run by lawmakers. It would be known as the Office of Congressional Complaint Review, and the rule change would require that “any matter that may involve a violation of criminal law must be referred to the Committee on Ethics for potential referral to law enforcement agencies after an affirmative vote by the members,” according to Goodlatte’s office.
Lawmakers would have the final say under the change. House Republicans voted 119-74 for the Goodlatte measure despite arguments from Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., against the change. They failed to sway rank-and-file Republicans, some of whom have felt unfairly targeted by the OCE.
“The amendment builds upon and strengthens the existing Office of Congressional Ethics by maintaining its primary area of focus of accepting and reviewing complaints from the public and referring them, if appropriate, to the Committee on Ethics,” Goodlatte said in a statement.
Democrats, led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, reacted angrily.
“Republicans claim they want to ‘drain the swamp,’ but the night before the new Congress gets sworn in, the House GOP has eliminated the only independent ethics oversight of their actions,” the California Democrat said in a statement. “Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress.”
Chris Carson, president of the League of Women Voters, said Ryan should be ashamed of himself and his leadership team.
“We all know the so-called House Ethics Committee is worthless for anything other than a whitewash — sweeping corruption under the rug. That’s why the independent Office of Congressional Ethics has been so important. The OCE works to stop corruption and that’s why Speaker Ryan is cutting its authority. Speaker Ryan is giving a green light to congressional corruption.”
The OCE was created in March 2008 after the cases of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., who served more than seven years in prison on bribery and other charges; as well as cases involving former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who was charged in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and pleaded guilty to corruption charges, and former Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., convicted on corruption in a separate case.
AP Congressional Correspondent Erica Werner contributed to this report.
Senate Republicans united behind Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in insisting that President Barack Obama’s successor fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. Democrats looking to reclaim the Senate majority immediately accused them of putting politics ahead of their constitutional responsibility.
Vulnerable GOP incumbents in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Ohio — all states that Obama won twice — echoed McConnell’s contention that the winner of the presidency in November’s election should choose the next jurist. Democrats counter that Obama is president until Jan. 20, 2017, and has every constitutional right to nominate Scalia’s replacement.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, who sits on the Judiciary Committee and has been mentioned on occasion in the past as a possible candidate for the high court, said Monday “there’s no need” to bring forth a nominee to succeed Scalia in the politically charged environment of a presidential election year.
“The Constitution doesn’t say that you have to do this in a certain time constraint. If the Democrats win this (presidential election), we’ll go through the process the way we ought to,” he told CNN.
Said GOP Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio: “I believe the best thing for the country is to trust the American people to weigh in on who should make a lifetime appointment that could reshape the Supreme Court for generations.”
Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said: “President Obama insists that he will nominate someone for the court. He certainly has the authority to do so. But let’s be clear — his nominee will be rejected by the Senate.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texan who has practiced before the high court and is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, has made filling Scalia’s vacancy the centerpiece of his campaign.
Obama has said he will fulfill his constitutional duty and nominate a replacement in due time. His Democratic allies made it clear that denying the president that right would be an unprecedented step and argued it would enshrine the GOP as “the most nakedly partisan, obstructionist and irresponsible majority in history.”
“By ignoring its constitutional mandate, the Senate would sabotage the highest court in the United States and aim a procedural missile at the foundation of our system of checks and balances,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in an op-ed in Tuesday’s Washington Post.
Senate Republicans have the numbers in this consequential “advice and consent” fight.
Republicans outnumber Democrats 11-9 on the Judiciary Committee, which would hold confirmation hearings and vote on whether to send the nominee to the full Senate. The GOP holds the majority, 54-46, and Democrats face an almost insurmountable task in trying to get 14 Republicans to join them in breaking a certain filibuster.
Beyond math is the political calculus. Control of the Senate is at stake this election and Democrats looking to unseat Portman and Toomey — along with New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte and Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson — have seized on their call to wait until next year.
In a fundraising appeal, Ohio Democrat Ted Strickland said Portman “has a clear choice to make: He can look out for his party and D.C. special interests by holding back President Obama’s nominee, or he can do his job for the people of Ohio.”
In New Hampshire, Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan criticized Ayotte and argued that Obama’s constitutional right to nominate isn’t suspended in his last year in office. In Pennsylvania, three Democrats looking to take on Toomey railed against the partisanship over senatorial responsibility.
Democrats are counting on the pressure on Republican senators to force McConnell to allow a nominee to move forward, though the majority leader has shown no signs of relenting since his statement within hours of Scalia’s death on Saturday that the vacancy should not be filled until a new president is sworn in.
Various conservative groups which claimed victory when moderate Republican Speaker John Boehner of Ohio stepped down last year, and have questioned McConnell’s fealty, made it clear the GOP must stand firm.
“Senator McConnell is right: Under no circumstance should the Republican Senate majority confirm a Supreme Court nominee as Americans are in the midst of picking the next president,” said Michael Needham of Heritage Action. “Republican rhetoric condemning President Obama’s willful disregard for the rule of law will ring hollow if they do confirm a nominee.”
Republicans and Democrats have battled this year over Senate production — or lack of it — as possible action on trade and criminal justice reform look increasingly unlikely. Obama’s allies made clear that if a nominee is ignored or delayed, they will accuse the GOP majority of obstruction, and use that argument in their bid to win back the Senate.
“Senate Republicans continue to think that governing is as simple as being against President Obama at every turn,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate. “It’s not, and the American people deserve better leadership than they’re getting with this Congress.”
One of the most vulnerable Senate Republicans is Durbin’s Illinois colleague, Sen. Mark Kirk, who argued that Washington should honor Scalia’s life “before the inevitable debate erupts.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat expected to be the party’s next leader in the Senate, said he will oppose the Iran nuclear deal in spite of President Barack Obama’s intense lobbying in favor of the accord.
The deal, struck last month with Tehran and Western powers, would curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars in relief from crippling sanctions.
“The very real risk that Iran will not moderate and will, instead, use the agreement to pursue its nefarious goals is too great,” Schumer said in opposing the pact. He said he based his decision on the nuclear and non-nuclear elements of the accord and on the question, “Are we better off with the agreement or without it?”
A leading Jewish Democrat, Schumer was the first senator of Obama’s party to step forward to oppose the deal. His announcement Thursday night came just hours after two other Senate Democrats — New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand and New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen — announced their support for the international accord.
“After deep study, careful thought and considerable soul-searching, I have decided I must oppose the agreement and will vote yes on a motion of disapproval,” he said in a statement issued weeks before he will cast a vote.
Schumer’s decision was a blow to the administration, though it remained to be seen how many other Democratic lawmakers would follow the New York senator. He informed the White House of his decision Thursday afternoon. New York Rep. Eliot Engel, who is Jewish and the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement that he too would oppose the deal.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday he “profoundly disagrees” with the reasoning behind the lawmakers’ decision to oppose the deal.
“It’s a question of eliminating options in a realistic way,” he said in Vietnam, where he was marking the 20th anniversary of U.S.-Vietnam relations. “I would respectfully suggest that rejection is not a policy for the future, it does not offer any alternative.”
Kerry added that if the deal is rejected, “there will be a hue and cry about Iran’s continued activity and that will lead people to put pressure on military action since the United States would have walked away from the diplomatic solution.”
Schumer’s split with Obama was remarkable for a senior leader in line to replace Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., after he retires at the end of next year. His decision also put him at odds with the Democrats’ likely presidential nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has cautiously embraced the deal.
The Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, supports the accord and has been working hard to persuade lawmakers to do the same.
The administration, which has lobbied intensely for the pact, has secured the backing of more than a dozen Senate Democrats and more than two-dozen House Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Republicans, who control the House and Senate, have been uniformly opposed to the deal.
Schumer signaled that he wouldn’t lobby hard against the accord. The House and Senate will begin debate on a resolution of disapproval when lawmakers return to Washington on Sept. 8 after their August recess. The administration needs Democratic support to sustain a widely expected veto by Obama of any resolution of disapproval.
“There are some who believe that I can force my colleagues to vote my way,” Schumer said. “While I will certainly share my view and try to persuade them that the vote to disapprove is the right one, in my experience with matters of conscience and great consequence like this, each member ultimately comes to their own conclusion.”
Schumer had been under pressure as a congressional ally of Israel, leading fundraiser and strategist for his party, and lawmaker from a state that is home to more than a million-and-a-half Jews.
He complained that the pact does not allow inspections “anywhere, anytime” and that the United States cannot demand inspections unilaterally.
Schumer joined a handful of Jewish Democrats who have announced their opposition — Reps. Steve Israel and Nita Lowey of New York and Ted Deutch of Florida. Michigan Rep. Sander Levin, however, has endorsed the deal.
The powerful pro-Israel lobby American Israel Public Affairs Committee is vehemently opposed to the deal, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denounced as undermining the security of Israel and the region. Opponents of the pact have targeted Schumer in campaign-style ads.
The media-friendly Schumer made the announcement through the blog Medium, not in a high-profile speech on the Senate floor like several of his colleagues. His statement also was posted as much of the political world was focused on the first Republican presidential candidate debate.
The announcement came hours after the Senate left Washington for its recess. The move spared Schumer weeks of intense lobbying from proponents and foes of the deal.
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this story from Hanoi, Vietnam.
House Speaker John Boehner said Tuesday it will be “virtually impossible” for Congress to approve President Barack Obama’s proposed authority for military force against Islamic State militants.
In a meeting with a handful of reporters, the Republican leader said Obama’s proposal for new authority is stalled months after Obama requested a three-year authority that bans “enduring offensive combat operations” for U.S. troops.
Boehner said it made no sense for Congress to give the president less authority than he already has to combat Islamic extremists, who have captured parts of Iraq and Syria.
“Until the president gets serious, there’s no reason to give him less authority,” Boehner said.
Congress has held several hearings on Obama’s request, issued in February, but the authority has languished.
Boehner, who recently led a congressional delegation to the Middle East, said he wants U.S. forces in Iraq to have a larger role in planning and directing Iraqis trying to combat the Islamic militants. He stopped short of saying the U.S. should send more than the 4,500 troops in the region.
Boehner expressed frustration with the administration’s strategy, saying he repeatedly heard two questions from U.S. allies — where’s America headed or is America abandoning us.
He echoed the administration contention that Syrian President Bashar Assad has to go after years of civil war. Boehner maintained that Islamic State militants are a more serious concern than Assad.
“His power base continues to shrink,” Boehner said.
Republican senators poised to lead major committees when the GOP takes charge are intent on pushing back many of President Barack Obama’s policies, setting up potential showdowns over environmental rules, financial regulations and national security.
The all-GOP Congress — Republicans also have a commanding majority in the House — gives the powerful Senate committee heads a newfound opportunity to steer legislation and help shape the national debate.
With Republicans winning control of the Senate in the November election, all the committees will get new leaders, though all have been around for years.
The heads of the 13 major committees and Veterans’ Affairs are some of the most senior members of the Senate. Three are octogenarians and four are in their late 70s. Only one new leader will be a woman; Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski is in line to take over the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
A look at the powerful senators and their issues:
Kansas’ Pat Roberts, 78, will consider renewal of child nutrition programs that have been pushed by the White House and expire next year. Roberts has criticized efforts to make school lunches healthier, calling for studies on the costs of the program and economic impact on schools.
Roberts has been a recent dissenter on the normally bipartisan panel, voting against the five-year farm bill that Congress passed in May. Roberts supported the bill’s boost in crop insurance for farmers but said other subsidies needed more changes. He called the entire bill “a look in the rear-view mirror.”
Like his Republican counterparts in the House, Roberts has championed cutting back spending for food stamps, saying the farm bill’s estimated cut of $8 billion over 10 years was insufficient.
Roberts held the gavel of the House Agriculture Committee 20 years ago and during his tenure he helped write the 1996 farm bill.
The gavel of the powerful panel responsible for drafting approximately one-third of the federal budget will return to Mississippi’s Thad Cochran, who turned 77 in December and was just re-elected to a seventh term.
Cochran was in charge during the last two years of the previous GOP majority and was a driving force behind more than $100 billion in funding to help Gulf Coast states recover from Hurricane Katrina. He was also a big practitioner of earmarks, those home-state goodies such as highway projects, economic development grants and university research dollars.
GOP leaders have banned earmarking, but Cochran is sure to back Navy shipbuilding efforts. Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, which makes a variety of Navy ships such as modern destroyers, is Mississippi’s largest private employer.
Republicans are expected to use the 12 spending bills to challenge Obama on policy issues, such as health care, financial services, immigration and the environment.
Leading the committee has been a long-sought goal for 78-year-old John McCain of Arizona, the former Navy pilot, Vietnam prisoner of war and two-time presidential candidate who lost to Obama in 2008.
McCain, who has hinted he might seek a sixth term in 2016, stands as one of Obama’s fiercest critics on national security, casting the administration as weak and ineffective in countering threats overseas. He has repeatedly called for arming and training moderate Syrian rebels and favors more U.S. forces in Iraq to battle Islamic State militants.
McCain has been critical of Pentagon contracting. Increased examination of defense manufacturers and acquisition policy is certain. The Pentagon can largely forget about scrapping the A-10 Warthog aircraft, which McCain heavily favors, and can expect close scrutiny of the costly F-35 fighter jet.
BANKING, HOUSING AND URBAN AFFAIRS
The wily Richard Shelby, 80, makes a return tour as head of the committee. High on his agenda will be changes to the financial overhaul law enacted in response to the 2008 crisis, known as Dodd-Frank. The 2010 law that brought stricter regulation of banks and Wall Street has been a burr in the side of Republican lawmakers, and the GOP-controlled House has passed numerous bills to unwind it.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the next majority leader, put it plainly at his day-after-the-election news conference: “The Banking Committee is certainly going to look at Dodd-Frank.” The big banks, he said, “are doing just fine under Dodd-Frank. The community bankers are struggling.”
Besides bank rules, the committee under the Alabama senator also may focus on curbing the authority of the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau over auto lenders and credit card companies. The bureau was created by the financial law.
Also likely to get committee attention is legislation to reshape the housing finance system and wind down mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Shelby succeeded as head of the panel from 2003 to 2007 in blocking bank regulation proposals.
In a surprise, Wyoming’s Mike Enzi will become chairman of the Senate Budget Committee after Jeff Sessions of Alabama stepped aside. Sessions had been the top Republican on the committee the past four years.
Enzi, 70, said he will work to craft a budget “that cuts spending, targets executive overreach and reduces the size of government.”
He will be called upon to craft a budget framework that could serve as a template for follow-up legislation to repeal Obama’s health care law and, perhaps, tackle expensive benefit programs such as Medicaid and food stamps.
COMMERCE, SCIENCE AND TRANSPORTATION
South Dakota’s John Thune, 53, faces a heavy workload — reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration and Amtrak, net neutrality and transportation.
The committee will have to address the auto safety portions of the highway bill in the aftermath of General Motors faulty ignition switch recalls, now linked to more than two dozen deaths, and the Takata air bag recalls, also linked to several deaths. Proposals to toughen federal oversight of the auto industry are likely. Some lawmakers have called for eliminating the $35 million cap on how much the government can fine automakers in such cases.
ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES
An energy policy expert from an energy-producing state, the 57-year-old Murkowski wants to unlock as much of America’s energy as safely possible.
Murkowski has argued for opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling, as well as Alaska’s offshore, and has opposed regulations that block energy production. She believes EPA regulations to curb coal-fired power plant pollution to deal with global warming will threaten the reliability and raise the costs of electricity.
She supports exporting U.S. natural gas and has led the charge on pressuring the administration to lift restrictions on exports of crude oil. She has backed the immediate approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which McConnell has said will be first on the new agenda.
Murkowski, unlike others in the GOP, believes global warming is happening and that Alaskans are already experiencing the effects of rising water temperatures and thinning ice.
ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS
The likely ascent of Oklahoma’s James Inhofe, 79, represents one of the biggest sea changes on a Senate committee with Republicans in charge.
Inhofe, one of Congress’ most vocal deniers of the scientific consensus of climate change, wrote in a 2012 book that global warming was “a hoax.” He will replace Californian Barbara Boxer, who introduced climate change legislation in 2009 and was an ally of the environmental community and Obama.
Inhofe, by contrast, is a thorn in the side of the Environmental Protection Agency and has argued that more regulation will kill the economy and jobs. Inhofe has called on the EPA to abandon stricter rules on refinery air pollution and to reject their own scientists’ recommendation to tighten a standard for the main ingredient in smog. Inhofe is likely to boost oversight of the agency and try to thwart its agenda at a time when Obama wants to shore up his climate legacy.
The 2010 health care law is in the GOP’s crosshairs, and Utah’s Orrin Hatch, 80, is likely to use his position to take the first step at chipping away at it.
Hatch has called the law’s tax on medical devices “stupid” and is determined to roll it back. He is likely to gain some Democratic support for the effort.
Hatch could be a free-trade ally for Obama if the president pushes more trade agreements.
Overhauling the nation’s complicated tax laws also is a priority for Hatch. But it’s a heavy lift.
Administration officials say Obama will offer new specifics in the coming year on how he would like to reshape corporate taxes, which now feature the highest rate in the industrialized world. But bridging the divide between Republicans and Democrats on major tax legislation would require a level of bipartisanship that has largely been absent during Obama’s first six years as president.
Hatch has worked with Democrats in the past; his friendship with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts is legendary. Hatch will need to work with Democrats again if he is to advance an overhaul of the tax code.
Tennessee’s Bob Corker, 62, has criticized Obama’s foreign policy as tepid in dealing with Russia, Libya and Syria. Like several other Republicans on the committee, Corker has deep reservations about the administration’s negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Some Republicans have said the GOP will push new penalties this month that target Tehran.
Secretary of State John Kerry has asked Congress for new war powers in the fight against the Islamic State group. Corker has raised the possibility that he could work with the administration on the issue.
Obama’s ambassadorial picks and other nominees would face a rough outing before the committee.
HEALTH, EDUCATION, LABOR AND PENSIONS
Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, 74, is a former education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, governor and president of the University of Tennessee.
A lawyer by trade, he helped form a corporate childcare company in the private sector. Alexander said he wants to fix President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind education law that’s been due to be renewed since 2007 and update the Higher Education Act.
He’s called the health care law a “historic mistake” and supports repealing it. He’s also said modernizing the National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration is a necessity, and he is seeking to examine the FDA’s process for drug and device review. On workers’ issues, he’s sought to turn the National Labor Relations Board into what he says is more of an umpire role.
A farmer, not an attorney, Iowa’s Charles Grassley, 81, has been on the Judiciary Committee since his 1980 election to the Senate. But this will be his first stint as its chairman.
In that post, many expect him to continue his long-running interest in protecting whistle-blowers who reveal details of alleged fraud by government contractors and others. He’s also expected to continue oversight of programs like the Justice Department’s bungled “Fast and Furious” operation, under which federal agents lost control of guns they were tracing to Mexican drug lords. Many also expect him to work on legislation easing federal regulations on businesses.
Grassley opposed last year’s Senate-approved bipartisan immigration bill, arguing that it needed to do more to secure the country’s borders before granting legal status to people in the U.S. illegally. He’s also pressed for more information about the National Security Agency’s ability to gather information on Americans, though he’s cautioned that the agency must be able to protect national security.
A decade ago, Grassley spent time as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and played a role in winning approval of President George W. Bush’s 2001 tax cuts and the 2003 addition of prescription drug benefits to Medicare.
HOMELAND SECURITY AND GOVERNMENTAL AFFAIRS
Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, 59, has been a tough questioner of administration officials about the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. The question will be whether the panel’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation opens another Benghazi inquiry in Congress as well as other reviews of the Democratic administration.
Under the leadership of Delaware Democrat Tom Carper, the committee focused primarily on the internal workings of the sprawling Homeland Security Department, including low morale ratings from rank-and-file employees and contracting issues.
Johnson has focused on those rankings in the past and led an investigation of complaints from whistle-blowers about the department’s former acting inspector general. His report, co-authored with Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, prompted DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson to suspend the former top internal investigator.
While the committee has addressed immigration issues in the past, senators on this panel have not taken as prominent a role as their counterparts on the Senate Judiciary Committee. In the coming months, however, any administrative changes put in place by Obama are almost certain to be reviewed.
Georgia’s Johnny Isakson, 70, has stressed mental health needs of veterans and voted in favor a bill to provide two-year funding for veterans’ benefits, so veterans would continue to receive benefits even in a government shutdown.
Aides say Isakson’s priorities as chairman would include oversight of the new Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, which was approved this past summer in response to a scandal over long wait times for veterans seeking health care and falsification of records to cover up delays.
Isakson strongly supports a provision in the law that makes it easier for veterans to seek Department of Veterans Affairs-paid care from local doctors. Bringing competition into the VA health care system will improve services, he says. Isakson also said the new law provides an opportunity for the VA to assess the quality of it leadership and management, and said underperforming executives and managers should be fired.
Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor, Kimberly Hefling, Joan Lowy, Alan Fram, Marcy Gordon, Matthew Daly and Alicia Caldwell contributed to this report.
One colleague called the tactics of tea party-backed Sen. Ted Cruz on the $1.1 trillion spending bill a painful echo of last year’s 16-day partial government shutdown.
Another senator said it was a strategy without an end game.
And that sniping came from Cruz’s fellow Republicans.
The 43-year-old Texas freshman in a political hurry — he’s considering a 2016 presidential run — infuriated several GOP colleagues with a last-minute attempt to force a vote on President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
The move upended lawmakers’ weekend plans and, more troubling for his party, gave Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., an opening to move forward on long-stalled Obama nominees.
When Cruz got his vote Saturday, he lost badly, 74-22, as even Republicans who agree with him on immigration repudiated his effort. Moments later, Congress cleared the spending bill.
“You should have an end goal in sight if you’re going to do these types of things and I don’t see an end goal other than irritating a lot of people,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said it was a repeat of last year’s shutdown showdown over Obama’s health care law, when it was engineered by Cruz and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. Isakson said it was a movie he had seen before and “wouldn’t have paid money to see it again.” He called Cruz’s move a problem, not a strategy.
Added Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.: “I fail to see what conservative ends were achieved.”
For once, Democrats opted not to criticize Cruz publicly, a surefire indication they calculated that he was only hurting Republicans.
Cruz was unapologetic. He said the sole purpose of his efforts was to secure a Senate vote to “stop President Obama’s amnesty” — his description of the president’s plan for work visas for an estimated 5 million immigrants living in the United States illegally.
“Both Democrats and Republicans will have the opportunity to show America whether they stand with a president who is defying the will of the voters or with the millions of Americans who want a safe and legal immigration system,” Cruz said in a speech to a crowded Senate chamber moments before the vote.
Reid derisively said the “junior senator from Texas” was “wrong, wrong, wrong.”
In a Facebook post, Cruz had blamed Reid, arguing that Saturday’s series of round-the-clock votes on nominations was to prevent the vote he sought.
Cruz said Reid was “going to an embarrassing length to tie up the floor to obstruct debate and a vote on this issue because he knows amnesty is unpopular with the American people, and he doesn’t want the Democrats on the record as supporting it.”
Republicans said Cruz’s move had the reverse effect of his campaign on immigration, ensuring a vote on the nominee for Customs and Immigration Enforcement who would carry out Obama’s executive actions.
Cruz, a Cuban-American with an Ivy League resume, time as Texas solicitor general and a Supreme Court clerkship with the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, created headlines in his first few months in the Senate with a fierce challenge to Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be defense secretary.
Last fall, it was Cruz and Lee who roiled the GOP and Washington with their push to starve Obama’s health overhaul of money, a drive that led to the partial shutdown.
Democrats weren’t surprised that the conservative duo struck again.
“They’re all about headlines. They’re trying to get attention for themselves. They’ve succeeded in doing that,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.
In his current maneuvering, Cruz sent a shot across the bow at incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, suggesting the two should not be entirely trusted to keep their promise to challenge Obama’s immigration policy when the all-Republican Congress takes over in January.
“We will learn soon enough if those statements are genuine and sincere,” Cruz said Friday night.
Cruz’s moves troubled Republicans looking ahead to next month and their new majority.
“I’m concerned that we fight when we can win and get something accomplished. And of course that’s what we’re trying to set up for next year when we have the majority in the Senate,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.
Congress cleared a $1.1 trillion spending bill for President Barack Obama’s signature after a day of Senate intrigue capped by a failed, largely symbolic Republican challenge to the administration’s new immigration policy.
The vote late Saturday night was 56-40 in favor of the measure, which funds nearly the entire government through the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year. It also charts a new course for selected shaky pension plans covering more than 1 million retirees, including the possibility of benefit cuts.
The Senate passed the bill on a day Democrats launched a drive to confirm two dozen of Obama’s stalled nominees to the federal bench and administration posts, before their majority expires at year’s end.
Several Republicans blamed tea party-backed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for giving the outgoing majority party an opportunity to seek approval for presidential appointees, including some that are long-stalled.
It was Cruz who pushed the Senate to cast its first vote on the administration’s policy of suspending the threat of deportation for an estimated four million immigrants living in the country illegally. He lost his attempt Saturday night, 74-22, although Republican leaders have vowed to bring the issue back after the party takes control of the Senate in January.
“If you believe President Obama’s amnesty is unconstitutional, vote yes. If you believe President Obama’s amnesty is consistent with the Constitution, vote no,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid rebutted instantly, saying Cruz was “wrong, wrong, wrong on several counts,” and even Republicans who oppose Obama’s policy abandoned the Texan.
The spending bill, which cleared the House on Thursday, was the main item left on Congress’ year-end agenda, and exposed fissures within both political parties in both houses.
It faced opposition from Democratic liberals upset about the repeal of a banking regulation and Republican conservatives unhappy that it failed to challenge Obama’s immigration moves.
While the legislation assures funding for nearly the entire government until next fall, it made an exception of the Department of Homeland Security. Money for the agency will run out on Feb. 27, when Republicans intend to try and force the president to roll back an immigration policy that removes the threat of deportation from millions of immigrants living in the United States illegally.
The legislation locks in spending levels negotiated in recent years between Republicans and Democrats, and includes a number of provisions that reflect the priorities of one party or the other, from the environment to abortion to the legalization of marijuana in the District of Columbia.
One, which drew vehement objections from the Democrats, would repeal a regulation imposed on banks in the wake of the near economic collapse of 2008. Critics called it a bailout for large financial institutions, but more than 70 House Democrats voted for it previously, and Obama made clear he didn’t view it as a deal-killer.
The pension provision was a bipartisan agreement that opens the door for the first time to benefit cuts for current retirees covered by multi-employer funds in shaky financial condition.
Supporters said it would protect retirement income to the maximum extent possible without also endangering the solvency of the government fund that guarantees multi-employer plans. Critics said it posed a threat to the pension recipients, and that it could also become a precedent for other pensioners.
Immigration was at the heart of the day’s events in the Senate.
Cruz seized on the issue late Friday night when he tried to challenge the bill. That led swiftly to the unraveling of an informal bipartisan agreement to give the Senate the weekend off, with a vote on final passage of the bill deferred until early this coming week.
That, in turn, led Reid, D-Nev., to call an all-day Senate session devoted almost exclusively to beginning time-consuming work on confirmation for 13 judicial appointees and 11 nominees to administration posts.
The list included Carolyn Colvin to head the Social Security Administration and Vivek Murthy as surgeon general.
As the day wore on, senators were forced to spend hour after hour on the Senate floor to cast their votes. One, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., sat at her desk quietly for awhile reading a book.
By evening, cocktail hour in the East, strains of Christmas carols could be heard from behind the closed doors of rooms that surround the chamber.
Republicans tried to slow the nomination proceedings, but several voiced unhappiness with Cruz, a potential presidential candidate in 2016.
“I’ve seen this movie before, and I wouldn’t pay money to see it again,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., recalling Cruz’ leading role a year ago in events precipitating a 16-day partial government shutdown that briefly sent GOP poll ratings plummeting.
Cruz, in turn, blamed Reid, saying his “last act as majority leader is to, once again, act as an enabler” for the president by blocking a vote on Obama’s policy that envisions work visas for an estimated 5 million immigrants living in the country illegally.
Reid blamed a “small group of Senate Republicans” for the turn of events.
Asked if Cruz had created an opening for the Democrats, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah said, “I wish you hadn’t pointed that out.”
Hatch added, “You should have an end goal in sight if you’re going to do these types of things and I don’t see an end goal other than irritating a lot of people.”
The GOP leader, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, made no public comment on the events, even though Cruz suggested Friday night McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, should not be entirely trusted to keep their pledge to challenge Obama’s immigration policy.
“We will learn soon enough if those statements are genuine and sincere,” Cruz said.
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed to this report.
Republicans will hold at least 246 House seats come January, according to election results Saturday, giving the GOP a commanding majority that matches the party’s post-World War II high during Democratic President Harry S. Truman’s administration.
The GOP retained control of two seats in runoffs in Louisiana, expanding the advantage for Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who can afford defections from his increasingly conservative caucus and still get legislation passed. Combined with the Republican takeover of the Senate, Congress will be all-GOP for the final two years of President Barack Obama’s second term.
The latest count gives the GOP a 246-188 majority. One race, in Arizona, is still outstanding.
In Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District, which extends from the state’s northeast into parishes bordering Mississippi, physician Ralph Abraham defeated Jamie Mayo, the Democratic mayor of Monroe. The incumbent, Vance McAllister, had failed to advance to the runoff. Elected less than a year ago, the married McAllister saw his career undermined after a video surfaced earlier this year showing him kissing another woman.
In the 6th Congressional District, in the Baton Rouge area, former state coastal restoration chief Garret Graves turned back Democrat Edwin Edwards, a four-term governor and ex-congressman who had to overcome his 2000 corruption conviction and subsequent prison term.
One race still must be decided.
In a Democratic-held district in the Tucson, Arizona-area, an automatic recount will determine whether Rep. Ron Barber keeps his seat or Republican challenger Martha McSally prevails. McSally led by fewer than 200 votes.
If McSally wins, Republicans would have 247 seats, the largest majority since 1929-31 when the GOP controlled 270 seats in President Herbert Hoover’s administration.
In the midterm election rout, House Republicans prevailed on Democratic turf, netting 12 seats and winning in New York, Illinois, Maine, New Hampshire and Iowa. Republican challengers knocked out long-term Democratic incumbents in Georgia and West Virginia, seats that the GOP now could hold for generations as the party maintains its stranglehold on the South.
The GOP had entered the Nov. 4 midterm elections with a 234-201 edge. Democrats had held out hope of minimizing their losses despite Obama’s low popularity and historic losses for the party occupying the White House. Democrats did manage to win three Republican-held seats in California, Florida and Nebraska, but Republicans had far greater success around the country.
The 246 seats match the total the GOP had in 1947-49 when Truman occupied the White House.
Obama suffered an ignominious distinction. His party lost 63 seats in 2010 and then 12 more this year, and he is now the two-term president with the most midterm defeats, edging past Truman’s 74.