As the House and Senate return to Washington for the new session, a look at the most important items on their agenda in the year to come.
Welcome to the age of volatility.
In politics and economics -- the driving forces in Washington -- 2012 dawns with more instability and chaos than any year I can remember.
Politically, the coming election could shift control of all three levers of power. President Obama could lose. So could House Republicans. So could Senate Democrats. Instead of repudiating one party, as they did in 2006, 2008, and 2010, voters could rewire this power grid -- shocking the survivors and newly empowered.
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Economically, prospects for job growth have improved, but the specter of a European financial meltdown, signs of contraction in Asia and South America, and higher domestic gasoline prices all threaten the anemic recovery. These are known risks. Each will intensify if Iran makes good on threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of all globally traded crude flows.
Congress, then, must confront what it least desires in an election year: instability and volatility. Throw in public anger (Congress's approval rating averaged 10 percent in the last 10 national polls) and you get vulnerability. Instability, volatility, and vulnerability make politicians nervous, edgy, fearful, and mean. Yes, I know. Congress is like that most of the time. But this year could set new lows for jumpy, ill-mannered partisan ferocity.
In this toxic atmosphere, five matters hang over the second session of the 112th Congress. How they are dealt with, it seems to me, will decide the fate of the majority parties and could contribute mightily to the outcome of the presidential election.
- The Boehner-Cantor feud. I don't think it's a stretch to say the fate of the House GOP majority rides on this being resolved. I don't mean totally resolved, I mean resolved to the point where Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor convey unity of purpose that not only passes public scrutiny but creates momentum among House Republicans. I downplayed this feud for a year, knowing that leadership rivalries are common but rarely corrosive. This one isn't corrosive -- yet. But it is a distraction up and down the leadership ladder, among the rank and file, and with GOP-leaning outside groups. Boehner and Cantor don't need to love or even like each other. But they need to function publicly as a team. That means standing together when the news is good and bad. Boehner doesn't demand this and Cantor doesn't volunteer it. This is the duel within the duel. Someone has to change. If not, the cracks will widen and sides will be taken. And Democrats, who have been poking this festering sore for 12 months, will delightedly exploit the breach.
- The Keystone XL pipeline. Since losing the first round of the payroll-tax cut extension debate to Obama in December, Republicans have said almost nothing about the coming clash over how to offset the costs of that tax cut, the Medicare "doc fix," and extending unemployment benefits. Instead, Republicans have focused all their attention on forcing Obama to green-light the Keystone XL pipeline. That suggests Republicans will deal on the spending cuts, and if they can, "win" on the pipeline. The White House is playing footsie with all manner of Keystone procedural delays, trying to smoke out spending-cut concessions from the GOP. The outcome will set all power parameters for the remainder of the year.
- Europe's debt crisis. If a 17-nation economic zone collapses and the world's largest and most powerful economy does nothing, do we live in a global economy? That question merges economics and metaphysics, but it's still valid -- if a bit cumbersome. Greece is likely to default in March when 14.5 billion euros in debt comes due. Italy sold 4.5 billion euros in bonds on Friday, a positive sign. But its debt-to-gross domestic product ratio is 120 percent, surpassed only by Greece. Italy is not out of the woods. Investors are living on hope -- which isn't a strategy in war or finance. If panic sets in, the European economy could go from weak to comatose in months. Would America do anything? Would anyone in Congress suggest using taxpayer money to give the International Monetary Fund more cash to prop up the European Central Bank? This is not an idle question. Is anyone even thinking of an answer?
- Summer gas prices. Government and private-sector analysts predict gas prices will reach an average of $3.95 per gallon in May. In major urban areas, prices could easily exceed $4.50 and possibly reach $5. That will fuel no end of congressional outrage. But will it change policy or just harden the partisan divide over energy exploration versus environmental protection? In the heat of a reelection campaign, Obama might have to deal. What kind of bargain would Republicans drive?
- Congressional Republican support for the GOP nominee. This isn't 1996 and (virtual nominee) Mitt Romney isn't former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. Republicans then watched President Clinton sign welfare reform with glee. They knew they were killing Dole's campaign by taking a huge issue off the table. They did it to save themselves because they knew Dole couldn't win. Romney can and will run stronger than Dole. Does he become the de facto legislative strategist on Capitol Hill? How will the "Massachusetts moderate" tame or even deal with the Hill Tea Partiers who may view him with skepticism and, possibly, derision? If the former governor starts gearing up on the Keystone issue, you'll have a partial answer -- and some insight into issue No. 4.
Image: Larry Downing / Reuters