Whoever thought that the holiday season would have instilled some notion of peace, love and understanding in America’s highly partisan and contentious political class was dead wrong.
Instead, if the first day of the new Congress is any indication, the American public can expect two more years of open warfare between President Barack Obama and the Republicans, accompanied by the thunder and lightning of the skirmishes of the 2016 presidential election campaign that begins to roll along.
On Tuesday, the newly elected 114th US Congress convened for its first session, featuring the biggest Republican power since 1928.
In the House of Representatives, Republicans have their largest majority since the post-World War II era, 246 seats. In the Senate, where control switched from the Democrats to the party of Lincoln, Reagan and Bush, the Republicans have 54 seats to the Democrats’ 46.
Eager to roll back Obama’s policies and to challenge the Democratic president on various fronts, Senate Republicans have scheduled a hearing this Wednesday on legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, picking as first order of business one of the most controversial issues in Washington.
The pipeline, which would bring heavy tar sands oil from Canada across the middle of the US to a port on the Gulf of Mexico, has become a top priority for environmentalists, who say the project will exacerbate climate change and create other pollution risks.
Republicans favor the pipeline, saying it will create jobs and reduce gas prices, and have made it a top priority now that they control both chambers of Congress.
Knowing that Obama opposes the project, Republicans are none the less trying to reverse a negative pipeline vote by the old Congress as early as next week. But Obama was quicker.
The new Congress was barely seated when White House spokesman Josh Earnest issued a veto threat against Keystone XL. “I can confirm for you that if this bill passes this Congress, the president wouldn’t sign it.” So much for peace, love and understanding.
In fact, both sides have vowed since the November elections to try a different course of action: to seek common ground, to reach out across the aisle and work together where possible.
This is, indeed, what the US constitution requires. If there is no consensus between the legislative and the executive, the whole system of government is blocked.
Political standstill is now (sorry) in the pipeline. House and Senate are expected to easily pass the Keystone XL bill, but Republicans don’t have enough votes to overrule a presidential veto.
What will likely happen is that for the next couple of weeks, political Washington will engage in the same kind of unpopular back-and-forth over an issue the outcome of which seems to be certain: there won’t be a Keystone XL pipeline as long as Obama is in the White House.
But, as Republican House Speaker John Boehner said after being sworn in, “the battle of ideas never ends and frankly never should”.
Meanwhile, public polls continue to show Congressional approval numbers at historic lows – much lower than Obama’s numbers.
Gallup has shown public approval of Congress at 20 percent or lower since November 2012, dropping to as low as 9 percent in November 2013 after the government shutdown. In mid-December the approval rating was 16 percent, compared with 80 percent disapproval.
The Republicans claim that their overwhelming victory in November gives them a mandate to reverse Obama’s policies.
But they will only be able to fully relish their gains if there is a Republican in the White House in January 2017.
Until then, they will have to make a strategic choice: they can either push a conservative legislative agenda to please their core electorate even against an unreceptive president or they can cooperate with Obama and share the credits (and the centrist votes) with the Democrats.
After the first day of the new Congress, it looks like the battle lines are drawn.