The Realistic Republican To-Do List

Mitch McConnell and John Boehner want to score a few quick legislative victories in January.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/The Atlantic

The outline is fuzzy and the details need to be filled in, but newly-empowered Republican leaders have begun to draw up an agenda for the 114th Congress.

At the top of the list are trade, taxes, and construction of the long-stalled Keystone oil sands pipeline, the energy project that the GOP has held up as the most glaring example of the Obama administration's regulatory scheme and misplaced economic priorities. The party also wants to take up President Obama's invitation to revisit elements of his 2010 healthcare law, even if it's clear he won't sign legislation repealing or gutting it.

House Speaker John Boehner and Senator Mitch McConnell, the incoming majority leader, previewed their plans in Thursday's Wall Street Journal: They want to score victories early in 2015 to show voters Congress can function, and they intend to start with a few of the dozens of bills passed by the GOP-led House that went nowhere under Democratic rule in the Senate. Those include getting rid of the Affordable Care Act's definition of a 30-hour work week as full-time employment, along with a measure to boost the number of charter schools, which could gain some Democratic support.

"Enacting such measures early in the new session will signal that the logjam in Washington has been broken, and help to establish a foundation of certainty and stability that both parties can build upon," Boehner and McConnell wrote.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a Republican economist and president of the American Action Forum, said it was clear from McConnell's remarks since Tuesday's election that the Senate leader-in-waiting wants to focus on legislation that can get through a chamber that hasn't passed much of anything in the past year, and onto Obama's desk.

"It's not driving an exclusively Republican agenda," Holtz-Eakin said by phone on Thursday. "The key dynamic is getting Senate Democrats on board with legislation."

Because of the GOP's big win on Tuesday, McConnell could have as many as 54 Republicans, if Dan Sullivan holds his lead in Alaska and Bill Cassidy wins a run-off in Louisiana. That would mean he'd need only six Democrats to reach the 60-vote, filibuster-breaking threshold. It's an easy number for McConnell to reach on modest bills like Keystone and, say, repealing the healthcare law's medical device tax. Another potentially fruitful area would be trade deals, where the source of congressional opposition has been in Obama's own party.

The challenge for McConnell and Boehner could come from the right, where conservatives like Senator Ted Cruz and his allies in the House are sure to push the leadership to adopt a more ambitious—and confrontational—agenda. They are unlikely to be satisfied with tweaks to Obamacare instead of repeal, and they have already been calling for Republicans to pile conservative legislation on Obama's desk and force the president to wield his veto pen.

McConnell and Boehner gave nods to more far-reaching goals like scrapping Obamacare and passing overhauls of the tax code and entitlement programs. And on tax reform, at least, the president said yesterday he's interested in discussing a deal that would use revenue from corporate tax changes to pay for new infrastructure spending. But that kind of grand bargain may be too much for a lame-duck president and a mistrustful Republican Congress to pull off. "Tax reform is hard," Holtz-Eakin said, by way of a reminder. "To do something like you have to have an enormous amount of White House leadership."

He'd get no argument from the two Republican leaders on that front. They want to start small, score a few legislative wins, and go from there.