After years of frustrating gridlock, it might be tempting to just ignore the new, fully Republican-controlled Congress — but that would be a mistake. There are some crucial issues that the new GOP leaders have already pledged to address. There are other interesting bipartisan reform proposals that some legislators hope to win more support for. And, of course, the Senate will weigh many of Obama's remaining nominees in his final two years.
The new Congress could tackle all of these important topics in different ways. We'll see whether the body can get anything done — good or bad — on each of the following five issues.
1) Trade deals, particularly the Trans-Pacific Partnership
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is the proposed trade deal President Obama and the GOP both love. Broadly, it would extend free trade between 12 countries in Asia and on the Pacific. But critics have blasted the secretive process surrounding it, and argued that it advances the interests of big corporations rather than workers.
The details aren't yet finalized, though you can learn more about them in Danielle Kurtzleben's explainer. But it looks like Obama and Congressional Republicans will both be eager to push the TPP through. In December, soon-to-be-Senate Majority Leader McConnell said he spoke with Obama, and told him, "Send us trade agreements. We're anxious to take a look at them." Around the same time, Obama emphasized his support for the proposal: "There are folks in my own party and in my own constituency that have legitimate complaints about some of the trend lines of inequality, but are barking up the wrong tree when it comes to opposing TPP." He added: "Don't fight the last war."
For now, the issue before Congress will be whether to give Obama "fast-track authority" — which effectively lets the president have an up-or-down vote on the final deal without a risk that Congress will amend it.
2) Fast-track the Keystone XL pipeline
The new Republican Congress has signaled that it will push hard to fast-track approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil from Canada's oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries. Such a measure is extremely likely to pass — one failed to beat a filibuster in last year's Democratic Senate by just one vote. President Obama announced Tuesday that he would veto a standalone bill, and sounded skeptical about the pipeline in a recent interview. But it's been commonly speculated that Obama might be willing to trade away pipeline approval as part of some bigger deal — indeed, "people familiar with the president's thinking" told the New York Times in November that Obama might use Keystone as "a bargaining chip" in 2015. However, the bigger obstacle to US refineries getting more Canadian oil is the recent price collapse — if it sticks, production in the oil sands is likely to be scaled back.
3) Criminal justice reform
Over the past few years, there have been some noteworthy bipartisan proposals on various criminal justice issues. As Dara Lind wrote in November, the Smarter Sentencing Act — co-written by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mike Lee (R-UT) — would halve the mandatory sentence for federal drug crimes while also reducing many sentences of current prisoners. And Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) have a bill of their own to press states toward sentencing reform. Potential GOP presidential hopefuls like Rick Perry and Mike Huckabee have also spoken out on the issue. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Republican leadership is interested in prioritizing this issue.
Sure, confirming major presidential nominations isn't too far above the bare minimum a legislative body needs to do to be considered functional. Still, this new Senate will have to decide quickly on two big ones: Ashton Carter for Secretary of Defense and Loretta Lynch for Attorney General. Both nominees have received praise from some Republicans. But others want to use their confirmation hearings to challenge the administration on policy — particularly Obama's immigration executive action, the legality of which is sure to be a contentious subject in Lynch's hearing. The fate of these two nominees will set the tone for many future nomination battles in Obama's final two years. But it may make little difference to the GOP's reception of judicial nominees, which are sure to be contentious no matter what (particularly if a Supreme Court vacancy opens up).
5) Change the handling of sexual assault in the military
In March of last year, a bill to take military sexual assault prosecutions out of the hands of commanders fell five votes short of beating a Senate filibuster. But the bill's author, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), has redoubled her efforts to win more Republican supporters. Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY) are already on board. And as Rebecca Kaplan of CBS News pointed out, new senators Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) are both supportive of Gillibrand's bill — as is the new majority leader, Mitch McConnell. Amassing 60 votes will still be challenging — particularly because several Democrats oppose the measure. There's also the problem of getting it through the House, though — and President Obama hasn't backed Gillibrand's proposal either.