Yes, the House is back in session, with the Senate returning next week, and sure, there is a legislative agenda worth watching, but the action in Washington this year is expected to emanate from the White House, not the Capitol building.
That will begin with highly anticipated executive action on gun control, one of several issues on which President Barack Obama has despaired of seeing legislative success. With his time in office running short, Obama is expected to try to do what he can through executive orders and regulation.
But even the president will begin to fade into the background, as election-year action intensifies.
Republicans desperately hope to not only win the White House back, but to also retain their majority in the Senate. With the House virtually assured of staying in GOP control, that would give the party the trinity of power—even though a slim Senate majority would still make legislating difficult.
Democrats are equally interested in seizing just enough seats in the Senate to regain the majority there.
The stakes in the Senate are especially high in New England, where 10 of 12 Senators are currently in the minority—and would very much like to regain control of the floor agenda and committee chairmanships.
And the area’s predominantly Democratic House members know that their ability to work across the aisle—efforts I’ve reported here throughout 2015—are less likely if Republicans feel they can go it alone on their own agenda.
But the selection of the next president, which has already driven unusually high interest judging by debate audiences and other measures, will very soon shift into overdrive.
With the Iowa caucuses coming on February 1, and the New Hampshire primary eight days later, presidential nominating politics will soon eclipse everything.
Many expect Hillary Clinton to effectively lock up the Democratic nomination with the March 1 “SEC primary”—a day which will also see Massachusetts and Vermont vote. But the crowded Republican field could fight it out well into the Spring, to Connecticut and Rhode Island’s primaries on April 26, and beyond.
That barely provides a breather before the parties’ national conventions, which have been scheduled particularly early: the Republicans, in Cleveland, the third week of July, and the Democrats on the following week, in Philadelphia.
That, of course, sets off the general election campaign—not only for president, but for Congress.
In the House of Representatives, the pressure of November is relatively light. Democrats would need to gain 30 seats to retake the majority they lost in 2010, and nobody I speak with on the Hill thinks that kind of landslide is on the table.
That statement does require one caveat, however. If Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination for president, and continues to campaign in the fall with his trademark eagerness to offend, Republicans up and down the ballot could suffer from the fallout.
But, barring that scenario, the Republicans leading the House will spend the year seeking a rather low-profile balance. On the one hand, the party’s conservative members want to demagogue on hot-button issues, many of which were back-pocketed in 2015. But some of those issues could embroil and imperil not only Republican candidates in tough House races, but also the presidential and Senate candidates whose victories are needed for Republicans to have full control beginning in 2017. So, new Speaker Paul Ryan wants to steer a lower-profile course.
The House will also take “the longest summer recess in at least three decades,” according to Roll Call—52 days off.
There are indications that Ryan might seek yet another doomed Obamacare repeal effort, but this time with a more comprehensive replacement health care insurance scheme included.
And you’re likely to see a number of congressional hearings seeking to criticize anything and everything done by President Obama. A big focus of those will be foreign policy, including the war with ISIS and the nuclear deal with Iran.
Also watch for hearings on Obama’s gun control actions, trade negotiations, and of course the international climate change agreement negotiated last month in Paris.
Over in the Senate, where Republicans currently hold a 54-46 majority, there is little pretense about where the focus will be in 2016.
GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told the Wall Street Journal in December that “what we decide to allocate floor time to in the Senate, to be quite candid with you, is going to be to some extent … dictated by concerns I have about places like New Hampshire and Pennsylvania and Ohio and Wisconsin and Illinois.”
Those five states—all of which are relatively likely to vote for the Democrat for president—are the ones Democrats hope to win, to gain the 51 seat majority.
The intensity of those races is already becoming clear in the Granite State. Despite the usual quadrennial focus on presidential politics—at least eight candidates are in the state this week, plus former President Bill Clinton—both incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte and her Democratic challenger, current Gov. Maggie Hassan, reportedly raised more than $2 million in the final three months of 2015.
McConnell doesn’t want to hurt the chances of Ayotte, or Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, Ohio’s Rob Portman, Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, or Illinois’s Ron Kirk. All five incumbents are in states that also have a Democratic senator, so winning over the middle ground will be crucial to all of them.
That means bringing to the floor legislation that he thinks might help them, but also keeping far away from the floor anything that puts them in an awkward voting position.
And that’s likely to define much of Washington in general in 2016: playing up the partisan issues each party believes helps themselves, while running away from anything too controversial. That’s not much of a recipe for compromise and action.