Congress will return from Thanksgiving this week to take up a number of issues that must be resolved before the end of the year, including an increasingly urgent need to avoid another government shutdown by renewing spending authorities that expire in less than two weeks.
Increasingly, though, many members are looking beyond the New Year to the beginning of the 114th Congress in late January. The November elections, which threw the Senate to Republicans, giving the GOP control of both Houses of Congress, has them wondering what shape the legislative branch will take next year. The make-up of the House is fairly clear – a heavy Republican majority driven in large part by a strongly conservative base.
The Senate, though, is a different animal. Because individual senators have more power than House members, they can be harder to keep in line. Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, recently elected Majority Leader by the incoming Republicans, will be in charge of leading the body for the first time, and on Sunday morning two new senators-elect appeared on the morning talk shows and displayed the kind of different attitudes McConnell will have to reconcile.
Appearing on Meet the Press, Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR), who is also Senator-elect Cotton following last month’s elections, said that when Congress comes back to town this week, one of the first orders of business will be to “look for a tactical response” to President Obama’s recent executive action granting temporary legal status to some 5 million undocumented immigrants.
“Congress has to stand up for our prerogatives, which is to stand up for the American people,” said Cotton. He argued that the November elections were evidence that the voters have rejected President Obama and insisted that any action by the existing Congress should recognize that.
Lawmakers have to pass a bill funding the government by mid-December, or risk another government shutdown. Some Republicans have suggested passing a continuing resolution that would lock current spending levels in place until next September, with the exception of immigration-related funding. The aim would be to force the president to either veto a bill that would fund the majority of the government’s operations or to accept that the agencies charged with enforcing his immigration order be stripped of funding.
This, though, wasn’t appealing to Cotton. The incoming senator said that he would prefer to see yet another short-term spending resolution put in place that would carry the government into next year.
That would, he said, “let a new and accountable congress, not a lame duck congress” make decisions about spending across the government. “I am reluctant to cede the spending power” to the president, Cotton added.
Pressed by host Chuck Todd on whether the Republicans bore some responsibility to take affirmative steps to reform the immigration system, Cotton said he agreed. However, the only elements of a reform package he appeared interested in were those that keep immigrants out of the country.
“I think we should pass an immigration bill that addresses our problems: a lack of border security, lack of internal enforcement,” he said.
Cotton’s somewhat combative stance toward the president and, by extension, Congressional Democrats, was notably distinct from that of his fellow Senator-elect Thom Tillis, the Republican Speaker of the House of North Carolina’s state assembly, who defeated incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan in her bid for reelection last month.
“The American people did not give Republicans a mandate, they gave us a chance,” Tillis said in an appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation. “They gave us a chance to lead, and I’m glad to be a part of that.”
Tillis said he believes there are opportunities for Republicans and Democrats to work together “on any number of things,” including immigration reform and legislation promoting jobs.
Host Nora O’Donnell noted that President Obama will have to put forward nominees for two major cabinet positions in the coming weeks – Defense Secretary and Attorney General – and asked Tillis whether he anticipated a confirmation battle in the Senate.
“I think it’s a great opportunity right out of the gate for the president to identify consensus nominees…that we can all support,” he said.
Another important issue likely to come before Congress in the next session is the continuing military action against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In a discussion involving another senator-elect, current rep. Gary Peters (D-MI), Tillis said he hoped the president would come to Congress and request a renewed Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) – something the administration had originally resisted.
A new AUMF request, Tillis said, would be “a show of good faith from the president and it would give Congress more confidence that they’re a part of the process.”
Peters, noting that Congress has not been receiving the kinds of classified briefings on the effort against ISIS that it is used to, agreed.
“Congress needs to be intimately involved in these decisions,” he said. “It’s certainly a constitutional requirement.” He added that the support of Congress would “show strength in the international community.”
Asked by O’Donnell if he believes Democrats ought to compromise with Republicans in the coming legislative session, Peters said, “I think we have to. I think that certainly was the clear message we got from voters.”
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