The 114th Congress convened this week with Republicans controlling both the House (246R to 188D, 1 vacancy) and the Senate (54R to 44D, with 2 Independents who caucus with the Democrats) as a result of the 2014 Mid-term elections.
The House re-elected Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) Speaker of the House despite the defection of 25 Republicans, twenty-four of whom voted for other candidates, while one voted present. In his brief acceptance speech, Boehner acknowledged these dissenters who disagreed with his perceived lack of commitment to overturning Obamacare and the president’s executive order on immigration. He urged his Republican colleagues to “disagree without being disagreeable.”
In the Senate, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) became Senate Majority Leader as Republicans took control for the first time since the 109th Congress (2005-2007) when their majority was 55R to 44D with one Independent.
The 114th Congress has some unfinished FY2015 appropriations business. In December, the 113th Congress passed the FY2015 Omnibus Appropriations bill that funded 11 appropriations bills for the full year. However, the Homeland Security Appropriations bill, which was subject to intense debate after the president announced executive action on immigration, was funded under a Continuing Resolution (CR) through February 27, 2017.
The House will open the bidding on the Homeland Security bill next week by moving to pass its version that will include a provision to block the president’s executive action. The House bill may not be acceptable to the Senate and is sure to draw a presidential veto. However, acting almost seven weeks before the CR expires should give Congress time to construct a bill that avoids a shutdown on the Department of Homeland Security.
Regarding FY2016 appropriations bills, both the House and Senate Appropriations Committee leaders have expressed their commitment to proceed under regular order. This would mean a process that includes committee hearings, markups, and passage in each chamber followed by a conference agreement for each of the 12 appropriations bills. If this happens, it would be a significant departure from recent years, in which the congressional appropriations review process has been marked by intermittent action that most often concluded with omnibus and mini-omnibus appropriations bills.
However, this enthusiasm for regular order for appropriations bills could be dashed by the specter of sequestration (automatic cuts), which is set to restart again in FY2016. The budget agreement completed in 2013 established budget targets for 2014 and 2015 that set aside sequestration. But, in 2016 sequestration returns and, once again, Republicans and Democrats will have to try to reach a new budget agreement that addresses sequestration.
While there is general agreement on the Hill that sequestration is a bad idea that should be fixed, there continues to be little agreement on how that should be done. Many want to protect defense from significant cuts and others are concerned about the effect of sequestration on nondefense budgets. Speaker Boehner will have problems within his own party in efforts to reach a deal with Democrats. The Tea Party faction of the Republican Caucus will will press hard for additional spending cuts, while pushing for defense increases. It will take more than good intentions to conclude an agreement that can be passed in Congress and be acceptable to the president.