Issues That Will Drive Debate in the New Congress

Democrats are amenable to passing an infrastructure package and have called for such legislation to include measures aimed at combating climate change and protecting the environment. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer wrote a letter to the White House in December demanding that any infrastructure legislation in the new Congress “include policies and funding to transition to a clean-energy economy.”

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, see climate-change provisions as costly and unnecessary.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D., Ore.) will chair the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and will take a leading role in shaping any legislation that has to pass the Democratic House. Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) will chair a Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees transportation funding. President Trump and Mr. Schumer would also need to agree on any infrastructure legislation.

—Andrew Duehren

JUDICIAL NOMINEES

Having the Democrats in charge of the House sharply limits what Mr. Trump and Republicans can achieve in Congress. But given the Senate’s personnel powers, the GOP is poised to keep approving Mr. Trump’s nominees, including to judicial posts.

Mr. Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell during the past two years have packed the federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court, with conservative judges. Presidential judicial appointments need a simple majority to clear the Senate, where the GOP holds a 53-47 majority.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), one of the most vocal defenders of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his September confirmation hearings, is the new head of the Senate Judiciary Committee—a panel that will remain closely watched in the new Congress. Two Republican women will also join that committee: Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.

—Joshua Jamerson

HEALTH CARE

During midterm campaigns, Democrats made strengthening and defending the Affordable Care Act a key pledge. The issue was reignited last month when a federal judge sided with the claims of 20 Republican-led states that brought a lawsuit seeking to strike down the law. The law is in place, but its future is uncertain.

Democrats are unified behind the idea of stabilizing the ACA. Reps. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, Richard Neal of Massachusetts and Bobby Scott of Virginia are expected to push legislation seeking to block some of the Trump administration’s initiatives to roll back the law. But there is less consensus among Democrats about how much further to go.

Several committees are expected to hold hearings on Medicare for All proposals, in which a government agency would provide essential health care to all Americans, an idea the Progressive Caucus is championing. But many of the Democrats recently elected in swing districts want to proceed with caution.

Some Republicans embraced the federal judge’s ruling as reason for the GOP to fully abandon the ACA. But the popularity of protecting pre-existing conditions became clear during the midterm elections, and centrist GOP lawmakers are likely to push their own legislation guarding those protections. Reps. Greg Walden of Oregon and Kevin Brady of Texas are expected to be vocal in the House Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means Committees, respectively.

In the Senate, GOP lawmakers up for re-election in 2020 in competitive states, including Susan Collins of Maine, have pushed to work with Democrats to shore up the ACA.

—Kristina Peterson

DEBT LIMIT

Congress in February 2018 suspended the debt ceiling, the federal government’s borrowing limit, until March 2. But the government will likely be able to conserve enough cash to keep paying its bills until at least midsummer, according to an estimate from the Bipartisan Policy Center. After that, the Treasury Department won’t be able to tap bond markets to raise cash to fund government operations and could default on its debt—unless Congress acts.

House Democrats on Thursday approved a rule allowing the chamber to suspend the debt ceiling at the same time it approves an annual budget. Known as the Gephardt rule, it enables lawmakers to avoid taking a separate, direct vote on the borrowing limit. Democrats hope that could prevent market-rattling debt-limit fights over spending that Congress has already approved.

Congressional Republicans say debt limit votes, while unpopular, serve a useful purpose to force lawmakers to confront federal spending. The GOP-led Senate isn’t expected to follow the Gephardt rule, according to Republican aides. Every Treasury secretary, under both Democratic and GOP administrations, wants the debt limit to be lifted easily to enable the government to pay its bills and avoid spooking investors.

—Kristina Peterson

TRADE and FOREIGN POLICY

The U.S. late last year hashed out a trade deal with Mexico and Canada that revamps Nafta, first negotiated in the 1990s. Now, Congress must ratify the deal, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has the power to hold a vote to block consideration of a trade deal.

Mr. Trump has promised to soon begin the process of terminating Nafta to pave the way for Congress to consider the reworked pact. Termination would start a six-month withdrawal period and give lawmakers a choice: the new deal or nothing.

The president has tied trade to his foreign policy as well. Mr. Trump has said Mexico would pay for his planned wall along the U.S.-Mexico border through increased trade even if that nation’s leaders have refused to do so directly. Trade experts are trying to figure out how that would work. Rep. Richard Neal (D., Mass.) will chair the House Ways and Means Committee, which exercises jurisdiction over trade agreements.

Also of note on foreign policy in the new Congress: Both parties still want answers about the alleged Saudi-led killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and many Republicans and Democrats have sharply criticized Mr. Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria. Mr. Trump later indicated he was slowing the U.S. troop withdrawal following widespread criticism.

—Joshua Jamerson

OVERSIGHT

House Democrats plan to use their oversight power aggressively on the Trump administration on a number of fronts, perhaps most prominently on the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration along the southern border and Mr. Trump’s moves at the Justice Department, including the special counsel’s office. Democrats also plan to seek the president’s tax returns.

Oversight and investigations led by the House Judiciary, Oversight and Intelligence committees could cause headaches for Mr. Trump ahead of an expected re-election bid in 2020. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, as head of the Judiciary Committee, would also oversee stages of the impeachment process if Democrats went that route.

The top Republican representatives on those panels—such as firebrand conservative Jim Jordan, of Ohio, on Oversight—are likely to position themselves as counterweights to Democratic lines of inquiry.

—Joshua Jamerson

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