Senate in 115th Congress Likely to Be Focal Point
In the 115th Congress, Republicans will retain their Senate majority with an anticipated 52 seats (51 seats have been decided, but Louisiana has a December 10th runoff, which the Republican candidate is expected to win). Democrats remain in the minority but gained two seats in Illinois and New Hampshire, with Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Gov. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) defeating Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), respectively. Other Republicans returning to the Senate after tight races include Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO).
While Republicans will have the majority, do not expect it to be a rubber stamp for legislation sent from the House or for the legislative initiatives of President-elect Donald Trump’s administration. The Senate will remain a place of conflict between the two parties and chambers and will likely be the biggest check on Republican power, making it again a focal point in the next Congress.
While some issues could see varied levels of cooperation, it may be difficult for Republicans to reach 51 votes on some issues and even harder to reach 60 votes. Senators that opposed or clashed with Trump during the campaign, such as Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), and Sen. Ben. Sasse (R-NE), may make corralling all Republicans difficult. Other more moderate Senators, such as Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), may emphasize their independence as well. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) are expected to continue their unique brands of politics, particularly on foreign policy and civil liberties. Furthermore, Sen. Dean Heller will be running for reelection in Nevada in 2018, a state that Sec. Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 and that elected a Democrat, Sen.-elect Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), to replace Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV).
While Republicans are eager to use their control of Congress and the White House to enact policy changes, particularly on health care and entitlement reform, they will face challenges in using reconciliation as a vehicle. Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will also need to consider whether to use the “nuclear option” on the 60-vote threshold for breaking a filibuster on legislation and Supreme Court justices. Other Executive Branch nominees currently only require 51 votes. While McConnell could use the nuclear option to expedite approving Supreme Court justices and legislation, he may also seek to leave it in place to block legislation he has concerns with, leaving him able to use the Democrats as a foil and blame them for legislative gridlock. Sen. McConnell himself recently acknowledged the concern of any Senate majority that it knows it will not be in the majority forever.
Pence Joins Transition Team as Key White House Staff Named
President-elect Trump’s transition team is ramping up its efforts to hit the ground running on January 20, 2017. As part of this, Vice President-elect Mike Pence has taken over the role of Chair of the transition, replacing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who will become a Vice Chair, amid renewed scrutiny for his role in the bridge closure scandal in New Jersey. A former Christie staffer and former pharmaceutical executive, Rich Bagger, is also leaving the transition team but will remain an advisor. In addition, Trump’s children will join the transition team as advisors, continuing a role they played throughout their father’s campaign.
Leading the transition for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will be Andrew Bremberg and Paula Stannard. Bremberg worked at HHS during the George W. Bush Administration and most recently worked for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Stannard most recently worked at a DC law firm and previously served as Deputy General Counsel of HHS during George W. Bush’s Administration. Bremberg and Stannard will be the primary contacts on HHS issues for the Trump transition team.
Trump’s transition also announced two key White House posts: RNC Chairman Reince Priebus will serve as Chief of Staff and Trump’s Campaign CEO Stephen Bannon will serve as Chief Strategist and Senior Advisor. Priebus and Bannon are cited as “equal partners” in Trump’s White House, a status they had during the campaign. While Priebus’ appointment has been praised as a positive choice to bridge the gap between Trump and Congressional Republicans, Bannon’s appointment has met significantly more controversy for his past statements and media work, which has been criticized as vitriolic and anti-Semitic. The Anti-Defamation League and Members of Congress have condemned the choice of Bannon and urged Trump to reconsider. While Bannon’s appointment does not require Senate confirmation, it could begin to poison the well on any feelings of unity between Trump and his opposition.
Politics of Repealing and Replacing the Affordable Care Act Complicated in 115th Congress
With Congress and the White House in Republican control next year, Congressional Republicans are expected to send to the President’s desk legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. While in 2015 Republicans passed a repeal bill through the reconciliation process that was vetoed by President Obama, Republicans now face the challenge of passing a repeal and replace bill that could actually become law. Republicans, while in agreement over what portions of the law they most want to repeal, such as taxes and other requirements, other provisions remain more popular, such as covering preexisting conditions and allow young adults to stay on their parents coverage up to age 26.
However, reconciliation may prove a complicated path to pursue, as parliamentary rules limit what can be done through reconciliation, including limiting its use to once per year and restricting increases in the national debt. Furthermore, Republicans are likely to face opposition from more than just Democrats. Taking away health insurance from nearly 20 million Americans may provoke a backlash in the absence of an adequate replacement. Stakeholders, including states, hospitals, doctors, and insurance companies, who have invested in adapting to health reform may be concerned with changing rules and the prospect of the return to greater financial risk from uninsured patients. Rick Snyder, the Republican Governor of Michigan, stated that he would make the case to Trump for retaining the Medicaid expansion and he would share how it has benefited his state.
Trump’s own position continues to evolve separately from Congressional Republicans. Trump had praised Medicaid during the campaign and most recently suggested that all of the Affordable Care Act may not be scrapped under his administration. These complicated politics suggest that repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act will not be as swift and neatly partisan has the election results suggest.
SHORT LIST OF POTENTIAL CANDIDATES FOR HHS SECRETARY
- Florida Governor Rick Scott
- Former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal
- Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich
- North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers
- Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee
- Georgia Rep. Tom Price