Published December 31, 2010
With a divided Congress moving into Washington, President Obama's New Year's resolution might be to channel his inner uniter.
Perhaps the White House will cool it on the John Boehner taunting and telling Republicans to "sit in back."
But no matter the president's tone, civility and cooperation will be a heavy lift considering all the outstanding legislative fights lawmakers, new and old, are eager to wage. While the president and his allies deftly cleared away a massive tax-cut extension package, the Russian nuclear arms treaty and the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" at the end of the lame duck, that just made room for new disagreements. Political analysts say hopes for a new era of bipartisanship could yield to the more established Beltway tradition of gridlock.
Here's a sampling of the rumbles Americans can expect to see out of Washington in 2011:
Republican congressional leaders are vowing to cut the pork out of their diets next year with a ban on earmarks. That's a tough habit to kick.
The practice of designating funds for local projects, which accounts for a tiny fraction of the overall budget, has become symbolic of the kind of legal corruption Washington tolerates. But that practice allows lawmakers, particularly powerful ones, to show constituents they care.
Already, some are talking about the ways lawmakers on both sides will be able to get around the ban, by personally requesting with relevant agencies that money be directed toward pet projects -- instead of tagging that money during the appropriations process. Next year will separate the sticklers from the spenders.
Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., an anti-earmark crusader who's moving to the Appropriations Committee where all the magic happens, is vowing to hold lawmakers accountable. He told FoxNews.com he intends to "ridicule" anybody who breaks the pledge.
Even if the House stands its ground on the pledge, it's unclear how much influence those lawmakers will have on the Senate side where Democrats retain the majority. Obama, though, has spoken favorably about kicking the pork.
Health Care Post-Game
Thought the health care debate was over a year ago? Hardly.
The health care overhaul battle wages on in 2011, this time on two fronts.
One will be Washington, where even as new provisions of the law go into effect starting Jan. 1, Republican lawmakers want to pursue a largely symbolic vote to repeal the overhaul while simultaneously starving it of funds.
The second front is the courts, where judges have issued conflicting rulings and may eventually require an opinion by the Supreme Court to resolve them. Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., who opposed the health care law, described the courtroom as the principal battleground going into 2011.
While two judges have ruled in the Obama administration's favor, it was dealt a blow in December when a Virginia judge declared the critical provision requiring individuals to obtain health insurance unconstitutional. That could undermine the whole plan and has, at the very least, fueled the arguments of GOP lawmakers who are fighting the overhaul -- though Obama's veto pen is the biggest obstacle standing in their way.
Rick Tyler, director of the conservative Renewing American Leadership, said Republicans won't give up on this battle because they feel they owe their majority to "Obamacare" angst.
Out of Afghanistan?
One of Obama's toughest tests next year may come in how he handles the troop drawdown in Afghanistan.
July 2011 is supposed to start the clock on withdrawing U.S. forces, with a deadline of December 2014 to finish. The president has some wiggle room and may be putting more emphasis on the 2014 deadline. After all, if he withdraws too quickly, Republicans who helped fund his surge strategy over the summer could balk, demand hearings and cause other trouble.
But Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said that if the president doesn't withdraw troops fast enough, the anti-war left will rebel. He predicted a major scuffle over the withdrawal this coming summer.
"I could see them blowing up if a substantial number of troops are not withdrawn," Sabato said.
Complicating matters is the 2011 deadline for completely withdrawing from Iraq. Despite recent spates of violence in the country, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently said he would not budge on the withdrawal deadline.
With Republicans taking the helm of several powerful House committees, the Obama administration has a new set of headaches on its hands. Feisty GOP chairmen, out of sorts after four years in the minority, will have the power to hold hearings and issue subpoenas to get the answers they've been clamoring for.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., incoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is the central player in this new stage of Washington theater. He's promised hundreds of hearings under his watch which could cover everything from the stimulus package to earmarks to the bank bailouts.
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean predicted the party would use those hearings in part to tweak federal departments over the slow progress of job creation, "looking into the Labor Department, the Treasury Department -- what are their programs designed to do to help create jobs?"
Republicans do seem mindful, though, of warnings not to use their newfound power solely to exact embarrassing vengeance on Democrats.
"We can't just go on a witch hunt out there," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told Fox News. "We've got to be able to use that in a very judicious way, very respectful way, but also hold the administration accountable."
Deficit Reduction vs. Stimulus and Jobs Creation
For all the campaign trail talk about fiscal responsibility, the lame-duck passage of an $858 billion tax cut-extension package was a testament to anything but.
Sabato said one of the premier fights in the next Congress will be over whether to pursue more stimulus-style measures to boost the economy or get serious about the deficit.
"It's one or the other," Sabato said.
A looming vote over whether to raise the debt ceiling, now at $14.3 trillion, will concentrate minds on the subject. Though a sweeping report by Obama's deficit/debt reduction commission fizzled, any votes to support the debt ceiling increase will surely be accompanied by renewed vows to tackle the deficit by whatever means possible.
Obama has called for a freeze in civilian federal pay, while Republicans are calling for a host of discretionary spending cuts starting with a cutback in some legislative budgets. Richard Goodstein, former adviser to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, called the discretionary cuts "fantasy" in terms of their ability to dent the deficit. He said entitlement reform must follow.
To that end, Sabato said the GOP's whiz kid Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is poised to play a big role next year, having put together a road map in advance on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The question is whether the rest of his party will follow it.
Bonjean said Congress will still need to push hard on the economy even if it follows through on spending cuts. He predicted Republicans would push a single, jobs-creation package -- mostly consisting of regulatory and tax relief for businesses with the end goal of incentivizing hiring. He said Republicans will have to propose spending cuts point-for-point to offset it.
If the first 100 days is a president's honeymoon, then the third year is that rancorous period when some couples move closer and closer to trial separation. The final call doesn't come until November 2012, but virtually anything Republican leaders and Obama do before that will be in the context of the next presidential election.
Consider 2012 the wild-card factor in 2011.
Most, though not all, of the potential GOP contenders in the mix are not in Congress. That's potential relief for Obama. But Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell nevertheless said in an interview shortly before the last election that the "single most important thing" Republicans can do is oust Obama in 2012.
By that standard, anything that's good for Obama next year will not be good for Republicans.
Climate Regulation Backlash
Unable to pass select priorities through Congress, the Obama administration is turning increasingly to the tool of federal regulation to get things done, particularly when it comes to climate change.
A cap-and-trade bill left for dead in the outgoing Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency announced last week it will propose new rules to regulate emissions over power plants and refineries. The agency already announced federal guidelines on industrial emissions earlier in the year.
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., soon-to-be chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, calls the regulation an "assault" on the country's energy industry and is vowing to fight it next year.
Goodstein predicted a clash of ideologies over climate change, among other things.
"I think coming ahead we see a Tea Party that thinks there shouldn't be an EPA," Goodstein said.