Don’t expect an avalanche of big legislative accomplishments by Congress in 2016, with leaders already lowering expectations and political parties sharpening their contrasts for a year in which the White House and Senate control are up for grabs.

First thing up for the new session: hitting President Barack Obama with a repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s core provisions that he will veto. Republicans who won the Senate in 2014 to complement their House majority are eager to show voters they’re still focused on the health-care law even though this vote -- like more than 50 previous ones in the House -- won’t succeed in repealing Obamacare.

Also looming is the release of a report by the House Select Committee on Benghazi into the 2012 terrorist attack in Libya that killed four Americans. Given the partisan anger already churning over the panel’s focus on Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the panel’s final findings and recommendations are likely to further ignite election-year divisiveness -- even more so if it’s delayed until the presidential primaries begin.

Benghazi panel Chairman Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican, hasn’t pinpointed a date for the report. A Dec. 3 statement from committee spokesman Jamal Ware said the panel hopes to release it "in the next few months."

Still, hope for a more upbeat era of bipartisan congressional achievement is understandable given the passage in December of a $1.1 trillion government spending bill as well as major highway, education and other measures before that. There’s talk about new efforts this year to pass all 12 spending measures for the first time since 1994, and to help Puerto Rico with its financial crisis.

In addition, House and Senate negotiators will work to reach agreement on the first major overhaul of chemical safety laws in four decades. Lawmakers also will try to complete work on a customs enforcement measure that passed the House and Senate in different forms to help ease passage of trade promotion authority legislation.

Most Divisive

Yet, when it came to deciding what to do first on Jan. 5 -- the opening day of the new House session -- Republican leaders led by new Speaker Paul Ryan scheduled a House Rules Committee meeting to tee up one of their most divisive and familiar measures.

Paul Ryan
Paul Ryan
Photographer: Drew Angerer/Bloomberg

"When we return in January, the House will put an Obamacare repeal bill on the floor and pass it, and put it on the president’s desk," said Ryan of Wisconsin at a Dec. 17 news conference before Congress’s holiday break. The bill to be taken up this week has already passed the Senate, so it will be the first such measure to reach the president’s desk for a certain veto.

Lawmakers enter the new session as a national Gallup Poll released Dec. 17 showed Americans’ approval of Congress averaged 16 percent in 2015, virtually unchanged from the 14 percent average recorded in 2013, the lowest in four decades. This marks the sixth consecutive year, and the seventh in the last eight years, in which fewer than 20 percent of Americans approved of Congress.

Ryan has held the speaker’s gavel since Oct. 29. His first weeks in the position were marked -- according to a boast by his own office in a press release -- "by steady productivity and a distinct lack of drama," including passage in December of the government funding bill and a companion tax measure. 

Injecting ‘Intrigue’

The same press release argued that those things happened "perhaps to the disappointment of many in Washington" and not without the media "trying to inject intrigue whenever possible."

But the media can’t be blamed for Ryan’s decision to set a partisan tone for the new session through an immediate vote to repeal Obamacare and send the measure to the president’s desk. The more likely inspiration is a need to placate fellow Republicans’ ideological demands.

The bill would eliminate major provisions of Obamacare, including financial penalties for individuals who don’t obtain health insurance and large companies that fail to provide health coverage for their workers. It would also deny federal funding to Planned Parenthood, the reproductive health-care organization.

“Once again, Republicans are wasting time on a radical bill that will never become law,” Drew Hammill, spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said in a statement Monday. Democrats in Congress have enough votes to block Republicans from overriding the president’s veto of the legislation.

‘Pro-Growth’ Agenda

The Obamacare repeal effort is just one part of what Ryan calls his “bold, pro-growth” 2016 legislative agenda to help build a more "confident America." But along with repeal and eventual replacement of the health-care law, the package of conservative ideals he’s mentioned so far -- overhauls of U.S. tax laws and welfare programs -- are anything but fresh, and unlikely to soon become law. 

Even Ryan acknowledges that, to some degree.

"Are we ever going to have a law repealing Obamacare signed into law by a president named Obama? I kind of doubt that," Ryan said at the Dec. 17 news conference.

Ryan has similarly sought to inoculate himself from criticism over Republicans’ probable inability this year to enact other conservative goals. He explained in his Dec. 3 speech that even if Obama won’t sign many of these measures into law, "we will put out specific proposals and give the people a real choice" between the Republican and Democratic agendas.

Joint Retreat

The former Republican vice-presidential nominee has hedged on what ideals might actually be offered as legislation, noting that Senate and House Republicans will hone their agenda at a joint retreat in Baltimore this month.

Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell already appear to disagree on how tax-code revisions should be pursued in this last year of Obama’s presidency. 

Senator Charles Schumer, a New Yorker who’s expected to be Senate Democratic leader in 2017, said he’s been in talks with Ryan about possible legislation to revise the tax code for overseas corporate income. Ryan said at a Dec. 15 event sponsored by Politico that was "something we could explore in 2016, which is far short of comprehensive tax reform.”

McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, responded during a Dec. 18 news conference that he prefers a broader approach. "My own view is we need to do comprehensive tax reform," he said.

"And what are the conditions under which you can achieve that?" asked McConnell. "I think you have to have a bipartisan agreement that is going to be revenue-neutral to the government." He added, "I don’t think we’ll be able to do any kind of tax reform with this president unless he changes,” because Obama wants a tax overhaul to raise additional funds.

Trade Deal

Even though Republicans largely supported Obama’s push last year for legislation allowing fast-track completion of trade deals, Ryan and McConnell won’t commit to votes in Congress on the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership that was completed in October. McConnell said Dec. 15 that he was “disappointed at the outcome” of the pact, while Ryan said he didn’t have a “set date” for the House to consider the agreement.
 
Still, both parties are expressing some hope for bipartisanship in some areas. One is to pass all 12 government appropriations bills this session instead of a repeat of the giant omnibus measure enacted in December.

"This hasn’t been done since 1994, but it’s how Congress ought to operate so that we can better protect the taxpayer dollars and make our place the true representative body that it is," Ryan said Dec. 17.

Lawmakers also will work on a plan to help Puerto Rico cut its crippling debt. Congress granted increased health-care funds and Treasury Department technical assistance last month that Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch said would help the island’s agencies stay afloat through February. The House Judiciary Committee plans a hearing next week on the fiscal crisis, a House Democratic aide said last week, though the session hasn’t yet been scheduled. The House Natural Resources Committee will hold two hearings related to Puerto Rico in mid-January, said spokesman Parish Braden.

Ryan is under pressure to make good on his promise to party conservatives of a return to a more orderly process for passing spending bills. He has promised to let committees thoroughly vet individual measures and to avoid last-minute bills such as the one in December that passed with heavy Democratic support.

Some Republicans muted their concerns over that spending bill but aren’t likely to continue doing so.

Conservatives’ Demands

John Zogby, a pollster based in New York state, said, "I think the GOP leadership went about as far as it could with passage of the budget and spending legislation." He predicted Ryan and other Republican leaders will find themselves still "strangled" by the demands of conservatives, including the House Freedom Caucus, "and the recent memory of high-profile members who were defeated by Tea Party candidates."

"They are also stymied by not wanting to enhance President Obama’s legacy," he said.

The continued occupancy of a Democrat in the White House hovers over Republicans’ legislative intentions in 2016. The pressures of presidential and congressional elections further shrink the prospects of bipartisan cooperation.

"It’s an election year, and obviously, a lot of the legislative process is going to be skewed by people looking over their shoulders, worrying about primaries, trying to position themselves relative to the presidential candidates," Obama said at a Dec. 18 news conference. "So that makes it harder. But I think there are going to be a handful of areas where we can make real progress."

Senate Election

Of the 34 Senate seats up for election in November, 24 are held by Republicans and 10 by Democrats. The nonpartisan Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report lists 14 of the seats as “safe Republican” and eight as “safe Democrat.”

In the House, Democratic leaders aren’t predicting a “wave” election in 2016 that would overturn the Republicans’ majority, which is now 246-188. Still, Democrats say Republicans are likely to struggle to hold swing districts in states including New Hampshire, Maine, New York and Illinois. Rothenberg & Gonzales lists 31 House seats “in play,” 25 of which are held by Republicans. Fourteen of those are depicted as tossups, with three held by Democrats and 11 by Republicans.

‘Cooperative’ Minority

Evidence that the Senate is working again, McConnell said Dec. 18, was seen through action on “a lot of things that have been languishing around here for quite a while," including trade promotion authority, a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind education law and a multiyear highway bill.

Schumer had his own take on the Senate’s 2015 accomplishments. “We can only hope Republicans will be as cooperative a minority as we were this year, when Democrats take back the Senate in 2016,” he said at a separate news conference that day.

“All sides are claiming credit for a successful session,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “It’s victory lap time for both parties, perhaps trying to push up the approval ratings.”

But given the political pressures of 2016, Ross added, “Expect little from the second session of the 114th Congress.”

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