Health care repeal vote to open a political year in Congress
WASHINGTON — It's been like a long-delayed New Year's resolution for Republicans. But 2016 will finally be the year when they put legislation on President Barack Obama's desk repealing his health care law.
The bill undoing the president's prized overhaul will be the first order of business when the House reconvenes this coming week, marking a sharply partisan start on Capitol Hill to a congressional year in which legislating may take a back seat to politics.
There are few areas of potential compromise between Obama and the GOP majority in the House and Senate in this election year, but plenty of opportunities for political haymaking during the presidential campaign season.
Obama will veto the health law repeal bill, which also would cut money for Planned Parenthood. The measure already has passed the Senate under special rules protecting it from Democratic obstruction. But that's the point for Republicans, who intend to schedule a veto override vote for Jan. 22, when anti-abortion activists hold their annual march in Washington to mark the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in 1973 that legalized abortion.
Despite dozens of past votes to repeal the health law in full or in part, Republicans never before have succeeded in sending a full repeal bill to the White House. They insist that doing so will fulfill promises to their constituents while highlighting the clear choice facing voters in the November presidential election.
Every Republican candidate has pledged to undo the health law. The Democrats running for president would keep it in place.
"You're going to see us put a bill on the president's desk going after Obamacare and Planned Parenthood so we'll finally get a bill on his desk to veto," House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told conservative talk host Bill Bennett over the holidays.
"Then you're going to see the House Republican Conference, working with our senators, coming out with a bold agenda that we're going to lay out for the country, to say how we would do things very differently," Ryan said.
In the Senate, which reconvenes Jan. 11, a week later than the House, early action will include a vote on a proposal by Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican who is running for president, for an "audit" of the Federal Reserve. Democrats are likely to block it. But, like the health repeal bill in the House, the vote will answer conservative demands in an election year.
Also expected early in the Senate's year is legislation dealing with Syrian refugees, following House passage of a bill clamping down on the refugee program. Conservatives were angry when the year ended without the bill advancing. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky promised a vote, though without specifying whether it would be the House bill or something else.
The House Benghazi committee will continue its investigation of the attacks that killed four Americans in Libya in 2012, with an interview of former CIA Director David Petraeus on Jan. 6. That comes amid new Democratic accusations of political motives aimed at Hillary Clinton after the committee chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. for president. Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, was secretary of state at the time of the Benghazi attacks.
The bold agenda promised by Ryan after succeeding former Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, as speaker last fall will begin to take shape at a House-Senate GOP retreat this month in Baltimore. Thus far Ryan has pledged efforts to overhaul the tax system and offer a Republican alternative to the health overhaul.
In the Senate, McConnell's primary focus is protecting the handful of vulnerable Republican senators whose seats are at risk as Democrats fight to regain the Senate majority they lost a year ago. That means weighing the political risks and benefits of every potential vote to endangered incumbents in Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.
That could determine whether McConnell allows criminal justice overhaul legislation — the one issue cited by Obama and lawmakers of both parties as ripe for compromise — to come to the floor.
McConnell already has suggested that prospects for approval of Obama's long-sought Asia trade pact are dim, and the senator has ruled out major tax overhaul legislation as long as Obama is president.
McConnell could try to put his thumb on the scales of the presidential race with two GOP senators having emerged as leading contenders.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has been a thorn in McConnell's side, once calling the GOP leader a liar, and has frosty relations with his fellow senators. Rubio is on good terms with fellow lawmakers and has been endorsed by several of them. McConnell could schedule debate on an issue with the potential to favor Rubio politically over Cruz, such as National Security Agency wiretapping authority.
But McConnell insists he is staying out of it.
"We all have a big stake in having a nominee for president who can win, and that means carrying purple states, and I'm sure pulling for a nominee who can do that," McConnell told The Associated Press, refusing to elaborate on who might fit that description.