Obamacare. Immigration. Unemployment benefits. These were some of the biggest issues to occupy Congress last year—and they will again this year, with new fights already brewing as lawmakers return to Washington.
With almost every politician eyeing the midterm elections in November, these and a handful of other issues will define many congressional campaigns.
Here are five top issues to watch in Congress this year.
Democrats can smell Republicans' discomfort at the Dec. 28 expiration of unemployment benefits for people who have been out of a job for more than six months. The benefits were left on the cutting-room floor as part of the budget deal lawmakers reached in December, prompting an incessant outcry from Democrats and liberal groups.
Liberals are losing no opoportunity to put the blame for the unemployment cutoff squarely on Republicans, even though Democrats overwhelmingly sanctioned the budget-deal-sans-unemployment-benefits. "To the 1.3 million American losing benefits on Dec. 28, Merry Christmas from the GOP," said a TV ad produced by Americans United for Change, a liberal grassroots group, that ran on cable TV stations in the days leading up to the cutoff.
Not to be too politically greedy, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the ranking member on the House Budget Committee, is still hawking a proposal to extend the benefits for three months using revenues from the farm bill. Republicans rejected that option last month, but they might get another chance this month when the farm bill is back on the House floor.
The Senate is also expected to take up a unemployment bill this week, but it is unclear how the legislation might fare in the House.
It's true that the House GOP did everything possible to shut down the momentum created last year when the Senate passed a massive immigration bill that would create a 13-year path to citizenship for undocumented people. But then in December, House Speaker John Boehner did something that caught everyone's attention. He hired a true believer in a path to citizenship to run his immigration policy: Becky Tallent, former chief of staff for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., another true believer and the chief architect of the Senate bill.
Tallent's addition to the House leadership team doesn't mean the chamber will pass immigration reform this year, but it means GOP leaders will try. And that's enough to start the political and grassroots wheels churning to create a white-hot issue this summer. Sen. Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is dubious that the House can finish a bill before August, which would signal almost certain death for chances of passage before November. But he says any activity on the issue would be encouraging. "Anything," he said late last month. "Any sign of life."
Even the most conservative Republicans don't seem to mind the House's effort. "My theory is that we can win in 2014 without resolving it. We can't win in 2016 without resolving it," said Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, an opinion leader among conservatives on immigration. Cornyn voted against the Senate bill, but he has more faith in the House's idea of tackling smaller immigration issues one at a time. "What I wish the Senate would do," he said, "is do it on a step-by-step basis."
And if Cornyn has faith, maybe other staunch conservatives will follow.
Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is on a roll. He had two bills in a row produced from his committee pass on the Senate floor last fall—one to bar workplace discrimination against gays, lesbians, and transsexuals, and one tightening regulations on compounded drugs. Next up on the agenda is a minimum-wage increase.
Other than unemployment benefits, Democrats perhaps have no better campaign issue than the minimum wage. It's an easy idea to grasp. The current federal minimum is $7.25 per hour, and 21 states have set a higher minimum wage. Harkin and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., have introduced bills to raise the federal minimum to $10.10 per hour in three annual increments. Harkin is likely to move the bill through the committee in January or February, readying it for a Senate floor vote at Majority Leader Harry Reid's discretion.
Republicans will probably object, citing the burden on small businesses and accusing Democrats of using the issue to take the spotlight away from problems with Obamacare. Democrats don't care. With public opinion largely in favor of a minimum-wage increase, they see nothing but potential. "I don't think this is going to be something where you see one vote and then it goes away," a Democratic Senate aide said.
Obama's signature health care law will continue to be major a talking point for both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Democrats must defend the law, but Republicans are noting every single weakness exposed by the law's rollout and will be offering a host of proposals to change it in 2014.
Of particular interest is a proposal that Sen. Ron Johnson dubs "freedom of choice in health care," which would allow people to retain whatever health insurance they have, even if it doesn't meet federal standards. "Why are health care costs going up so dramatically? It's because of the cost in all these mandated coverages, that's why," the Wisconsin Republican said.
It's almost impossible to tell what impact, if any, Obamacare has had on health care costs, which are affected by a host of factors. The upward trajectory of costs has slowed in recent years after steadily rising for decades. But Johnson's point sounds good, particularly to people who are perfectly happy with their current health care plans but have to find new a one because the government deems their plan unacceptable.
The debate over Obamacare wouldn't be nearly as interesting if it weren't for the looming debt-ceiling fight that will surface this spring—the last vestige of the budget blockages that have stymied lawmakers for the past three years. The recent budget deal created a path away from many of these fights, but it did not address the debt ceiling.
The debt-ceiling debate gives Republicans leverage. Obama and Democrats want to raise the ceiling, and Republicans want something in return. What exactly that something is remains to be seen, but you can bet that Obamacare changes are in the mix.
Johnson says he wants the "keep your health insurance" proposal to be part of a debt-ceiling package. But there are other options, such as tax reform or changes to other entitlement programs such as Medicare or Social Security. Most of those conversations will go nowhere, but Republicans are fairly sure they can gain some sort of concession in exchange for averting a global debt default. The question is, what will it be?
This article appears in the January 6, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.