Washington Watch: Herding cats

The next two years are likely to be as unproductive as the past two.

The US Capitol building in Washington. (photo credit: REUTERS)
The US Capitol building in Washington.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
After Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) left the Senate to get rich as a K Street lobbyist he wrote an aptly named memoir about his days as Senate majority leader: Herding Cats.
As Mitch McConnell moves into that job next month he may feel like Lott understated the challenge. His final week as minority leader gave him a preview of the angst to come, and Democrats may not be his worst problem.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is already the most unpopular member of that body on both sides of the aisle. He infuriated his party leader by tossing one of his wrenches in plans to pass the $1.1 trillion government-funding bill for the rest of the fiscal year. A failed effort to force a vote on the president’s immigration executive order backfired and opened the door for Democrats to push through nominations and some other unfinished business that McConnell had hoped to delay until Republicans had the majority next year.
Making matters worse for McConnell was the split among Republicans on the Cruz move. Cruz got 22 Republican votes to 20 who stood with McConnell and the leadership; three abstained. Congressional observers say this may be a sign of things to come, with Cruz and possibly a dozen other uncompromising conservative allies bucking the leadership.
Voting with Cruz, who is eyeing the presidency and not a Senate popularity contest, were several other possible presidential candidates, Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Rob Portman of Ohio and John Thune of South Dakota.
Presidential ambitions of Republican senators could determine whether McConnell can meet his goal for the Republican-led 114th Congress: showing voters that the GOP is more than the party of “No” and that it can produce legislative results.
John McCain (R-Arizona), who knows something about running for president (he lost to Barack Obama in 2008), warned his party that “unless we can show the American people that we can govern, then we’re not going to elect a Republican president in 2016.”
McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner have been huddling in recent weeks to put together a first hundred days plan to move quickly on their legislative agenda. It won’t take much to do better than the departing most unproductive Congress in history, but that’s doesn’t mean it can be done.
Republicans saw their victories in November as a message that Washington is not working and they blamed the Democrats who control the White House and the Senate. In 2016 Republicans will be running as the party in control of the entire legislative branch.
Voter expectations are low. A Pew Research Center poll showed the country is deeply divided between those who think the coming year will be better (49 percent) and those who see the opposite (42%). Interestingly, two in three Democrats expect Obama to try to cooperate with Republicans, while “a big majority of Republicans don’t want their leaders to do so,” regardless of whether they accomplish anything, The Washington Post reported.
McConnell and Boehner will be pushing legislation the House passed but could not get through the Democratic- controlled Senate in this Congress. That will include the Keystone XL pipeline, fast-track trade agreement authority, repeal of the tax on medical devices and the rollback of federal regulations on banking, environment, consumer protection, mine safety and other businesses. Also look for more cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and other social welfare programs. A pet project of McConnell has long been repealing all campaign finance limitations.
An early effort will be made to force the president to withdraw his executive order on immigration, and there will be no immigration reform legislation. Most major Jewish organizations strongly supported the president’s action and the reform bill passed last year by the Senate but left to die in the House.
There is very little on the GOP domestic agenda to appeal to most Jewish voters, which helps explain the party’s heavy emphasis on its support for Israel in its Jewish outreach. The House Republican Israel Caucus this week named the only Jewish Republican in the next Congress, Rep.-elect Lee Zeldin of New York, as a co-chair. The announcement stressed the US-Israel strategic relationship but made no mention of peace diplomacy. That hawkish approach contrasts with the more dovish Democrats.
On foreign policy the Republican leadership will push for a tougher line and more sanctions on Iran, more militant approach to fighting Islamic State, increased military aid to the Syrian rebels and a limitation on the presidential authority to commit forces abroad.
But the really big foreign policy issue is not likely to be a real issue at all but a smokescreen for another priority. Benghazi. That’s a code word for “Stop Hillary.”
Hearings are already being planned in the House and Senate for next year on the September 11, 2012, attack on the US diplomatic mission that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. This has less to do with fact finding than destroying the former secretary of state’s presidential ambitions.
A two-year investigation by the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee found the CIA and the military acted responsibly in responding to the attack, the Associated Press reported, and found no intelligence failure and no wrongdoing by Obama administration appointees.
But that won’t stop the witch hunts. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), planning more hearings in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, makes no secret of his real target: “Secretary Clinton created a fiasco. And we’re going to investigate it.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) is also talking about holding hearings. He called the House GOP report “crap.”
Never mind that six other investigations by congressional committees and the State Department came to the same conclusion as the House Intelligence Committee. That’s because it’s really about smearing Hillary. And that means other hearings about her tenure at State plus they will try to tie her to everything about Obama that they oppose.
The next two years are likely to be as unproductive as the past two. Democrats will have to adjust to being out of power and worrying whether it will be payback time for all the affronts Republicans feel they suffered at the hands of Harry Reid and Barack Obama. The new Congress will also feature major attempts to pare back health and social service programs – a major problem for most mainstream Jewish groups with a progressive agenda.
Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.