For Congress, A New Year But Same Problems

National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
Jan. 5, 2014, 7 a.m.

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.

Un­em­ploy­ment In­sur­ance

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.

Im­mig­ra­tion

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.

Min­im­um Wage

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.

Obama­care

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.

Debt Ceil­ing

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?

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