Has GOP won enough power to pass its agenda?

Republicans will control the House in the next Congress, but the House alone doesn’t run the United States. Tax-cut fight will probably be GOP's first test.

Jonathan Ernst /Reuters
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, remarks on sweeping gains in midterm elections, at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, on Nov. 4.

Victorious GOP leaders are beginning to fill in details of their legislative agenda for Congress. But have they won enough power to actually get any of it passed?

After all, Democrats still have a (bare) majority in the Senate. Democratic President Obama can veto things he doesn’t like.

Republicans will control the House in the next Congress, which is a considerable achievement, but the House alone doesn’t run the United States. As the glow from their successful midterm elections begins to fade, GOP lawmakers may find it easy to block administration initiatives, but much more difficult to make their own the law of the land. They don’t have enough strength to enact their agenda on their own. At least, not yet.

IN PICTURES: Election day

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell understands this position. That’s why he’s been saying his top political priority remains working for Mr. Obama’s defeat in two years.

“We can hope the president will start listening to the electorate after Tuesday’s election, but we can’t plan on that,” Senator McConnell said in a speech to the Heritage Foundation in Washington last week.

In the short run, this means the upcoming lame-duck session of Congress could be tumultuous.

The first priority for lawmakers probably will be extension of the Bush tax cuts. While McConnell has indicated he is open to at least talking with the administration about a compromise solution, House Republican leaders on Sunday appeared to be digging in for a fight.

The second-ranking GOP House member, House minority whip Eric Cantor, indicated in a Fox News interview that he is opposed to one compromise position that’s been floated by the administration: a permanent extension of the tax cuts for the middle class, and a one- or two-year extension of the cuts for the wealthy.

“To sit here and say, 'Well, we’re going to just go about halfway,' or, 'We’re going to send the signal that it's going to be uncertain for job creators and investors to put capital to work,' that’s exactly what we don’t need right now,” said Representative Cantor.

If the GOP did agree to such a move (“decoupling” of tax cuts, in Cantor’s words), it might be difficult to extend the top-earner cuts alone at some future point. That may be one political reason that Republicans are resistant to the administration’s proposal.

Cantor did identify one issue on which he felt compromise with the White House was possible: congressional earmarks.

Obama has said he agrees with many in the GOP that the practice whereby lawmakers “earmark” money in appropriations bills for spending in their districts or states should end.

“I’m absolutely hopeful that we can do that,” said Cantor on Fox News.

Paradoxically, this is an issue where the House and Senate Republicans may not agree. McConnell said Sunday that the issue is “a lot more complicated than it appears.”

That is because it also involves an issue of legislative power. Of course Obama wants earmarks ended, said McConnell: All presidents want Congress to just send them pots of money to spend as the White House wants.

“The earmark issue is about discretion, about an argument between the executive branch and the legislative branch over how funds should be spent,” McConnell said Sunday on CBS. “And so it has generated some level of controversy within our conference.”

One big issue that does unite Republicans of both chambers is health-care reform. They want to repeal it and replace it with something else.

But flat repeal is going nowhere, for now. It might get through the House, but it would have a tough time in the Senate. It would certainly be vetoed by Obama.

House Republicans say they will try to hobble implementation of health-care reform by oversight hearings and by cutting off its funding. But the latter move would, again, require legislation that Obama has the power to strike down.

“You can’t fully repeal and replace this law until you have a new president and a better Senate. And that’s probably in 2013, but that’s before the law fully kicks in, in 2014,” said Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, who is likely to be chairman of the House Budget Committee in the next Congress, in a Sunday interview on Fox News.

IN PICTURES: Election day

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