In taking control of Congress on Tuesday, Republicans say they will quickly advance energy and health care legislation that stalled in the Democratic-controlled Senate as they try to make good on claims, and address doubts, that they can govern effectively.
“We have sort of laid down the marker, and we need to follow through,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Republican, as the 114th Congress prepared to convene.
Republicans hope to strike early with measures that are known to have bipartisan support. The House is set to pass legislation this week expediting the Keystone XL pipeline; the Senate is making it the first order of business as well. The House will also take up a measure that would change the new health care law’s definition of full-time workers to those working 40 hours rather than the current 30 hours.
Thirteen new senators and 58 new House members will be sworn in as the 114th Congress opens with its traditional pomp, allowing Republicans to take advantage of their strong election showing two months ago. The party has command of the House and Senate for the first time in eight years.
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Members of both parties say there is opportunity for compromise, particularly on trade, taxes and public works. Still, there are ample grounds for conflict, with President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration and the restoration of relations with Cuba hanging over the start of the new Congress.
On immigration, House Republican officials say they expect to approve a Department of Homeland Security spending measure before the end of January that would deny money to carry out Obama’s action to ease the threat of deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants.
Because the House has been in Republican hands since 2011, the real test comes in the Senate, where the new majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has a 54-46 majority. He will still have to find a way to make legislation passed by the House attractive to enough Democrats to assemble the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural obstacles and send them to the president’s desk.
Obama says he is open to working with the Republican Congress but draws the line at unraveling some of his major domestic initiatives, particularly on health care, Wall Street restrictions and the environment. The Keystone XL pipeline bill could present him with an immediate decision about starting the year with a veto, and Senate Democrats are confident they could sustain one.
At the same time, the administration needs Republican cooperation on some White House priorities, including the confirmation of a new secretary of defense and a new attorney general. Efforts to finance a new embassy in Havana and to name an ambassador there are likely to stir strong Republican resistance.
A sour note is possible on Tuesday as Speaker John Boehner of Ohio stands for his third term as the House leader. Some disgruntled conservatives have said they will not back Boehner.
He faces a long-shot challenge to his leadership from at least two U.S. House Republicans who say the speaker is too aligned with business-as-usual in Washington. Reps. Louie Gohmert of Texas and Ted Yoho of Florida said they would offer their names as alternatives to Boehner.
The Senate’s Keystone debate, to come after a Senate Energy Committee hearing on Wednesday and a vote by the panel on Thursday, will present the first trial of McConnell’s pledge for more open proceedings. Members of both parties will be able to offer amendments in what McConnell envisions as the sort of freewheeling debate that has been missing under Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who will now be the minority leader.
McConnell acknowledged that he would need help from Democrats who were willing to deal with Republicans.
Bloomberg News contributed to this report.