The Republican-controlled Congress returns Tuesday to begin an aggressive push on a range of policies that their new partner -- President-elect Donald Trump -- can help turn into law.
The focus in January will be to start the wheels in motion to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and vote to confirm many of Trump's Cabinet nominees. There will also be debate about Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election -- an issue the incoming President doesn't want to focus on, saying last week it's time to "move on" -- but many in his own party view as a serious threat.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is aiming to secure confirmation for many of Trump's top national security and economic team members around the time he is sworn in on January 20. While Democrats don't have the votes to block Trump's nominees, they are signaling an intense fight nevertheless. They are planning to leverage the high-profile committee hearings to draw contrasts with Republicans on key issues like health care, the environment and foreign policy.
"Repeal and replace" has been the regular Republican refrain from virtually the day President Barack Obama's signature health care law became law in 2010.
McConnell announced last month that the first vote of the new Congress will be to start dismantling Obamacare.
The President isn't going quietly. Obama is scheduled to visit Capitol Hill on Wednesday for a rare meeting with all House and Senate Democrats to "discuss fighting GOP plans to repeal (the Affordable Care Act)," according to a senior Senate Democratic aide. The high-profile visit signals that the President will be personally involved defending the law that stands as his most important domestic policy legacy.
Now that they have a GOP president to actually sign legislation that rolls back the law, congressional Republicans are acknowledging that it's complicated to simultaneously repeal Obamacare and put something else in its place. They control both the House and the Senate but they are limited because they don't have 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a Democratic filibuster that would be expected on efforts to get rid of Obamacare.
Their plan is to use a budget process known as "reconciliation" to wipe away the major planks of Obamacare. The Senate will begin debating a budget resolution this week as the first step. That allows them to use the procedure to pass the repeal in the Senate with a simple majority, avoiding an expected Democratic filibuster. Reconciliation rules do limit the items in the law that can be rolled back to those that have a direct impact on the federal budget, and Republicans still don't have all the details ready on which ones they will include.
Democrats are preparing an aggressive public relations campaign to highlight how Obamacare has helped the 20 million now covered because of the law, and the other benefits they believe have occurred, such as better preventive care.
On a conference call with House Democrats last week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi touted that the ACA lowered costs and improved outcomes for millions. She compared the fight ahead against Republicans to the one she led in 2005 and 2006 when then-President George W. Bush traveled around the country championing a proposal to privatize Social Security, a plan that didn't gain traction with the public or in Congress.
Events in House congressional districts are planned for January 7, and Senate Democrats are also teeing up several events in Washington this week to remind people about the elements of Obamacare they believe are popular.
Pelosi, incoming Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders announced that January 15 is a national "Our First Stand: Save Health Care" day of action for advocacy groups and Democrats to criticize Republicans for working to target the health care law, as well as other entitlement programs such as Medicare.
While Republicans can pass the budget measure relatively quickly over a few weeks to begin unwinding Obamacare, the package that will contain the actual plans for repealing the law will take at least a couple of months to develop. Several committees in both the House and Senate will weigh in with their stamps on the details, including which taxes will go and which ones may need to remain in place until a new replacement plan is put in place.
Democrats are also bracing for a big fight over funding for Planned Parenthood, an issue that has triggered multiple standoffs in the past with the GOP. It's unclear whether Republicans will include a ban on funding for the women's health care provider because of its role in providing abortion services as part of the initial budget bill. There is no consensus yet on when to address the issue, but conservatives are pressing for action soon and view the reconciliation process as the place to tackle it.
Republicans are also struggling to come to consensus on how quickly they need to lay out their proposal to stand up a new health care system to take Obamacare's place. Conservatives are insisting they limit any transition period to two years.
But GOP leaders are wary that once they begin unraveling the complicated federal and state programs now providing coverage, it will take three years or more to practically implement a new system. Multiple Republican aides say it's more likely that replacement plans will be voted on in a piecemeal fashion over multiple years, perhaps even after the 2018 midterm elections, to ensure there are not major marketplace disruptions or economic fallout for insurers, states or the private sector.
Trump's transition team describes the mix of business leaders and former military leaders selected for Cabinet posts as a group of outsiders set to shakeup the way Washington works. Republicans are confident that they have solid support and will get help of many of the red state Democrats, like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, to confirm them.
So far, Rex Tillerson, the oil company CEO Trump tapped to serve as secretary of state, is the only pick who is raising some concerns with a handful of Republicans. They want more information about his close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and how he will deal with myriad foreign policy issues where the US has tangled with Russia like Syria, Iran and recent cyberattacks.
Democrats are complaining that Tillerson, and many other Cabinet nominees, have been "very slow" in providing information to the committees ahead of the upcoming hearings that committee chairs are targeting to hold in the second week in January. They are threatening to drag out votes on nominees if they don't receive complete financial disclosure and ethics reports in advance of hearings so Senators can review the materials.
"Republicans shouldn't expect their nominees to sail through if those nominees won't provide the disclosure that past nominees provided and that senators, and the American public, deserve," Matt House, a spokesman for Schumer, told CNN.
Any delay would just be symbolic, but if Democrats use the full amount of debate time allowed under Senate rules, then a vote on each nominee that would normally take place in one or two days could stretch out a week. That could mean it could take months to clear through all of the president's nominees if Democrats decide to put up a fight, and other priorities like Obamacare repeal could also be delayed.
Democrats have been critical of virtually every person Trump has selected, but they realize they can't wage war on all of them. In addition to highlighting conflicts Tillerson's business dealings might present, multiple Senate Democratic sources say they are digging into the stock trades of Georgia Republican Rep. Tom Price, Trump's pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.
Under the law known as the "STOCK Act" Price has disclosed information about his trades involving health and pharmaceutical company stocks. One senior Democratic leadership aide suggested they view the issue of conflicts arising from votes in Price's post as budget chair coming around the time of these financial transactions as "seriously, seriously troubling." There is no evidence of any wrongdoing by Price.
Phil Blando, a spokesman for Trump's transition team, had previously told CNN Price "complied fully with all applicable laws and ethics rules governing his personal finances." And if confirmed would comply with the law, Blando added.
Obama's announcement last week of new sanctions against Russia for its cyberattacks during the presidential election are putting Hill Republicans in a tough spot. Virtually all the top GOP leaders in Congress publicly backed the sanctions, although they criticized how long it took to put them in place, along with the administration's overall foreign policy.
US intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia carried out a steady and deliberate cyberoperation targeting top Democrats email accounts and the Democratic National Committee. Senate Armed Service Chairman John McCain, R-Arizona, is holding a Thursday hearing on the threat posed by foreign governments targeting US computer systems, including Russia, which will be the first public hearing since agencies revealed the links they found to Russia in the attacks.
McCain, along with South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, have vowed to draft legislation imposing additional sanctions to penalize Russia, and Democrats have agreed to craft a bipartisan proposal.
Both McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan have publicly denounced Russia's moves, but any bipartisan push to move sanctions legislation puts them in the precarious spot of using valuable time in the first 100 days of the new administration on an issue that puts them at odds with Trump.
Floor fight over rules
Democrats are criticizing new Republican proposed rules governing decorum in the chamber of the House of Representatives. In response to a summer sit-in that Democrats used to take over the House floor, GOP leaders are adding a provision to impose fines as high as $2,500 for any member who uses social media application to broadcast activities from the floor. Some Democrats are calling the proposal "unconstitutional," "a gag rule" and "Putinesque," but the changes are expected to pass. It's unclear if a legal challenge could force the GOP to back down.