US Republicans begin two years of congressional rule
WASHINGTON DC, USA – A new US Congress convened Tuesday, January 6, in snowy Washington, where freshly-empowered Republican leaders seek quick economic victories like approving the Keystone pipeline and move to counter President Barack Obama's agenda ahead of 2016.
Rather than embark straight away on deep and complicated reforms, the Republicans who now control both the Senate and House of Representatives are making tactical strikes by voting this week on a series of conservative measures symbolizing their priorities for the 114th Congress.
Shortly after lawmakers are sworn in at noon local time (1700 GMT) Tuesday, the House votes on the Hire More Heroes Act, a jobs bill with the double-barreled goal of helping US military veterans find work and changing a key element of Obamacare, the president's landmark health care reform.
The chamber also votes this week on a bill to redesignate the 40-hour work week, a move aimed at countering the Obamacare provision that identifies a full work week at just 30 hours, a measure Republicans argue has led to reduced work for Americans.
A major first test comes in this week's energy debate which culminates with a House vote Friday, January 9, on legislation authorizing construction of the Canada-to-US Keystone XL pipeline.
The Republican-led House passed similar legislation in November but it fell one vote short in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The new leadership in the Senate, which flips to a 54-46 Republican majority Tuesday following November elections, has said it has enough votes to pass the measure.
The massive 1,179-mile (1,900-kilometer) project, which the Obama administration has held up for years over environmental concerns, would carry crude oil mined in Canada's tar sands to US Gulf Coast refineries.
Environmentalists and some Democrats have expressed fierce opposition, but Republicans have long backed the plan, arguing it will boost US oil production and create jobs.
Canadian firm TransCanada first proposed the pipeline in 2008, and Ottawa strongly backs the project.
Don't be 'scary'
For the final two years of Obama's 8 year presidency, Republicans will enjoy their broadest congressional majority since 1930.
The party is keen to avoid much of the political crisis of the last 4 years, including a crippling government shutdown in 2013, with incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urging his Republicans to tone down their hostile rhetoric and not appear "scary" to Americans in the run up to the 2016 presidential race.
"I don't want the American people to think that if they add a Republican president to a Republican Congress, that's going to be a scary outcome," McConnell said in a pre-Christmas interview with the Washington Post that was published Monday, January 5.
"I want the American people to be comfortable with the fact that the Republican House and Senate is a responsible, right-of-center, governing majority."
But even as McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner pledge to steer their congressional majority to some solid victories and prove they can govern, they begin the new session with their caucus divided.
Boehner is contending with his party's notoriously uncooperative right flank, a group of hard-core, non-negotiating conservatives who are expected to vote against him as speaker when the House convenes at noon and elects its leader for the next two years.
Boehner is predicted to win re-election, but the fissure could cast a shadow over the new Republican dawn on Capitol Hill.
As the season's first snowfall blanketed the capital, dozens of first-time lawmakers were being sworn in to their new jobs as America's representatives in Congress.
"We are ready to get to work under GOP leadership for Georgia and America," Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia said on Twitter. – Rappler.com