WASHINGTON -- Republicans take control of both chambers of Congress on Tuesday (Jan. 6) for the first time in nearly a decade. The power shift will test the Republican Party's ability to govern and advance an agenda that party leaders say will focus on job creation and improving the economy.
"We want to be a responsible, conservative and right of center governing majority," said incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
But lingering intra-party disagreements over the best way to maneuver around a Democratic White House pose new tests for a party that has focused more on blocking legislation than advancing it under the Obama administration. "We need to demonstrate an ability to govern," incoming freshman Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., told ABC's This Week.
The challenge will be particularly acute in the Senate where filibuster rules, an unpredictable conservative flank and minority party rights will make it difficult to advance major legislation without bipartisan support.
Top Democrats say those divisions will cripple the GOP. "They're not going to be able to do it," said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., who was tapped by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to serve in a new leadership post tasked with improving Democrats' economic message. "They are going to be engaged in this civil war between their far right base and the few moderates left."
McConnell and Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, are trying to steer an agenda that they say will prove to the country that the Republican Party can be trusted behind the wheel. They also want to overcome the negative perception that the party was the driving force behind the 2013 partial government shutdown and the near default on U.S. debt in recent budget battles.
McConnell has already made clear: no shutdowns, no defaults in this Congress.
Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, the incoming chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said he was hopeful the GOP could move beyond the "internal strife" that has caused friction within the ranks. "I'm hoping that the fact that we're in the majority will resonate with people," he said.
On Tuesday, Boehner is widely expected to be re-elected as speaker, despite two conservatives, Rep Ted Yoho, R-Fla., and Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Texas, offering themselves up as alternative candidates.
The first order of business in the GOP Congress will be a renewed effort to approve the construction of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, which fell just one vote short last November in the Democratic-controlled Senate. With Republicans in control, they are expected to pass it and send it to the president's desk. The White House has signaled Obama could veto it.
While Republicans are still working out their long-term agenda, the contours are taking shape and include plans to vote on legislation such as:
- Health care: Republicans are likely to try again to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but the effort is more symbolic as it will be vetoed if it hits Obama's desk. Other efforts to repeal an unpopular tax on medical devices and redefine the work week from 30 hours to 40 hours under the health care law are also in the works.
- Defense: Republicans want to reconfigure unpopular across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester that affect defense spending. Obama has also asked Congress to approve a new authorization for the use of military force to combat the Islamic State and address the modern terror threat.
- Budget: Incoming Budget Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., has already pledged that Republicans will approve a budget that achieves balance in 10 years. It is likely to include a proposal to revamp Medicare from a guaranteed benefit to a premium support program where seniors would receive vouchers to buy health care from private companies.
- Taxes: Obama and GOP leaders say an overhaul of federal tax laws, particularly on the business side, is a potential area for compromise.
- Trade: A long-stalled Asian trade pact is also a potential ground for bipartisan compromise as many Republicans support Obama's effort.
Republicans are bolstered by historic wins in the midterm elections where they picked up nine Senate seats for a 54-46 majority. In the House, Republicans have a 247-188 majority, which is the largest number of seats controlled by the party since the Hoover administration. The incoming Congress marks the first time Republicans have controlled both chambers of Congress since 2006 under the Bush administration.
In a Sunday appearance on CNN, McConnell reflected on his controversial past statement that he had hoped to make Obama a one-term president, noting that Obama had hoped McConnell would lose his 2014 re-election. "I think what the American people are saying is they want us both to still be here," he said, "They want us to look for things to agree on and see if we can make some progress for the country."