Republicans take control of Congress today determined to demonstrate to voters they can make Washington work as the 2016 presidential election looms. The best way to accomplish that is to avoid repetitious fights over health care and immigration and focus on issues where congressional leaders and President Barack Obama can reach consensus. Two more years of gridlock with a lame duck president would not serve the nation well when there is so much to be done.
The best hope for a reasonable way forward lies in the U.S. Senate, where Mitch McConnell of Kentucky becomes majority leader today as Republicans take control of the chamber with a 54-46 advantage. McConnell quietly met with Obama last month and later told the Washington Post he wants "the American people to be comfortable with the fact that the Republican House and Senate is a responsible, right-of-center, governing majority.'' Given Congress' overall dismal voter approval ratings, there is nowhere to go but up.
McConnell has tamped down expectations of grand bargains and suggests the Republican Congress can reach agreements with the Democratic president in areas such as trade agreements, tax code changes and new funding sources for infrastructure. That would be a good start, and finding more money to pay for more public works projects would help the improving economy. The federal gas tax has not been raised since 1993, and gas prices are low. But gasoline tax revenue has been declining with wider use of fuel-efficient cars, and there has to be a more stable revenue source for road construction. The highway trust fund will become insolvent in May, and another stopgap solution that uses general tax dollars is not the right answer.
Despite McConnell's efforts to make Washington work, there are immediate storm clouds. House and Senate Republicans are determined to pick a quick fight with Obama by passing legislation to force construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, an odd choice when gas prices are low and the project's grand promises of creating jobs have been discounted. Unable to repeal the Affordable Care Act, congressional Republicans plan to undercut it by defining the work week as 40 hours rather than 30 hours for health insurance purposes. Those are hardly olive branches.
The 114th Congress opens today with the swearing in of 13 new senators and 58 new House members, including Democrat Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, who defeated an incumbent Republican, and Republican Carlos Curbelo of Miami, who defeated an incumbent Democrat. Perhaps some fresh faces can bring fresh thinking and consensus-building to an institution that needs both.