The New Republican Congress Is Off to a Timid Start

GOP leaders want to move quickly on the Keystone pipeline while bigger confrontations with President Obama will have to wait.

Jonathan Ernst/AP

For a party that waited six years to challenge President Obama from a position of equal footing, Republicans are beginning their new majority in Congress with a modest agenda.

There will be no grand, coordinated push between the House and Senate to slap a repeal of the Affordable Care Act on the president's desk this week. No major overhaul of the tax code or entitlement reform. Not even a bill to overturn Obama's immigration action that most Republicans consider an abuse of executive authority.

No, Republicans are starting small in their first few days with full control of a suddenly snowy Capitol. The expanded House majority plans to vote on legislation to approve construction of the Keystone pipeline and take two surgical strikes at Obamacare by restoring the definition of a full-time work-week to 40 hours and exempting some veterans from its employer insurance mandate provision. (That is, Republicans plan to do so assuming they can first reelect John Boehner as speaker.) The Senate, hampered by its procedural rules, likely won't get to the bills until later in the month.

While some conservatives are predictably grumbling at the plan, Speaker John Boehner and the new Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, want to demonstrate that Republicans can govern, and not just toss the equivalent of legislative hand grenades at the White House for the next two years, only to have them sent back with a veto. Each of the three measures is expected to garner significant Democratic votes, giving them a bipartisan stamp even if Obama ultimately rejects them.

In part, the strategy is also about setting expectations for a conservative base that may think the new Republican majority can accomplish more than it can with Obama in the White House. "The expectations among the general public is that we can just kind of roll the president whenever we want," said Represenative Pat Tiberi, an Ohio buddy of Boehner's. "We know that’s different."

The goal, as McConnell bluntly outlined in The Washington Post, is also about 2016, and making sure the Republican Congress adds to—rather than diminishes—the chances of a Republican replacing Obama as president. “I don’t want the American people to think that if they add a Republican president to a Republican Congress, that’s going to be a scary outcome," McConnell said. "I want the American people to be comfortable with the fact that the Republican House and Senate is a responsible, right-of-center, governing majority."

As legislative policy, the Keystone pipeline is hardly frightening to most Americans, except perhaps to its most fervent environmentalist critics. The project that would carry oil from the sands of Canada to the Midwest has become a cause célèbre for Republicans in recent years, and its support among independents and Democrats made it an easy, relatively noncontroversial choice with which to launch the new Congress. Yet what the GOP once hailed as a symbol of Obama's "job-destroying" environmentalism has lost some of its luster now that gas prices have plummeted and the economy is broadly on the upswing. Republicans acknowledge the dynamics have shifted, but they aren't ready to abandon a proposal that can so easily garner 60 votes in the Senate and put Obama on the defensive. "I could argue that if we had $4 gas it would be an easier sell with the president," Tiberi explained. "But I think if you’re for it or against it, the $2 gas prices aren’t going to cause you vote no."

As for the bills targeting Obamacare, they too are likely to get Democratic support, but probably not enough to override a presidential veto. "We're not going to chip away at the law," declared Representative Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 House Democrat. Perhaps Obama will eventually agree to changes in the law, or even to approving Keystone, as part of a broader legislative compromise. But the bolder Republican plans for confronting the lame-duck president will have to wait a little longer.