Kabuki (歌舞伎?): a classical Japanese dance-drama. Kabuki theatre is known for the stylization of its drama and for the elaborate make-up worn by some of its performers. Since the word kabuki is believed to derive from the verb kabuku, meaning "to lean" or "to be out of the ordinary", kabuki can be interpreted as "avant-garde" or "bizarre" theatre. A perfect definition of Washington, where the Republican Congress is gearing up for a slew of popular legislation, and the President is demonstrating that he is the real cause of gridlock.
John Boehner has been in the House for 23 years; Mitch McConnell has been in the Senate for 30. Both have climbed over plenty of dead bodies to get where they are. The electoral fortunes of their party members in their chamber have been good during the time of their leadrship. Both will give their members the opportunity to participate in the process of creating legslation under "regular process" - unlike their Democratic predecessors who didn't do budgets, didn't allow amendments from the floor, and had all decisions made by a small leadership group. Both are adequately conservative and understand power. They are not rivals and do not aspire to the presidency. Both understand how their chamber and Washington work. Both can be strategic.
But what will they do, given the lack of the votes needed to override a presidential veto, the Senate Rules requirement that 60 votes are needed for anything substantive to go forward, and the overhang of a 2016 presidential election? The first week of the year is full of preemptive veto threats from a president who has shown no inclnation to work with members of his own party, much less Republicans. Here is a prediction and a hope:
1. They have a joint plan - what are the priorities?; who goes first on each?; how are the differences between the chambers to be managed?; how is the relation with President Obama to be managed? What, after all, is the objective?
2. Like a teacher on the first day of school needs to establish classroom order, the boundaries of acceptable dissent within the caucus need to be established. Fortunately, Boehner's caucus is large enough that he has a majority of 220 without his insurgents who will be punished - and certainly without any need for Nancy Pelosi's Democrats. McConnell has a larger challenge keeping his 54 in line and getting 6 Democrats to move legislation. (The 6 will vary by subject, but the XL maneuvering shows that 8 to 10 Democratic votes can be peeled off to oppose their president.)
3. The first round will be pointed kabuki bills designed to satisfy "the folks back home". Approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline (apparent veto); repeal of Obamacare (veto); override of Obama immigration actions (veto); delay of some financial regulations (veto.)
4. The real agenda will include thoughtful versions of House bills that died in Harry Reid's Senate. Rather than broad sweeping legislation, they will be broken up into smaller pieces which have public support and which the president might accept (with some horse trading.)
-- Fast track trade approval for treaties with Asia-Pacific countries which Obama supported but were killed by Harry Reid because of opposition by the AFL-CIO. This will pass and be signed.
-- Modifications to Obamacare - restore a 40 hour work week as the basis for requiring employers to provide health insurance (veto); elimination of the individual mandate (veto); repeal of the medical devices tax; pooling of small business insurance plans; subsidized high risk pools; perhaps weakening the contraception/abortion requirement. (If the Supreme Court applies the wording of the law and rules out subsidies for the federal insurance exchanges, a broader replacement is needed and Obama will need to compromise.)
-- Modifications to immigration law - first priority is border security; defund Obama efforts to prevent deportations; deny services to illegal immigrants; require local cooperation with federal authorities. The Republicans retained the hammer by not funding Homeland Security beyond March.
-- Business tax reform seems possible; Social Security reform will be attempted, but may have to wait for a Republican president.
5. In a bit longer term, the FY2016 budget beginning in October will move beyond the arbitrary budget limits of the 2011 sequestration agreement, using the normal budget and appropriation processes to reduce discretionary domestic spending, and restore military spending. There will be no vetoes here if Obama wants to keep the government running.
It will not be enough to accept vetoes and move on. Many of these issues cause a split in the Democratic Party, with Obama representing the "progressive" wing and the Clintons historically representing the "labor" wing. The mantra will be "What would Hillary do?" - on the XL Pipeline which she waffled on as Secretary of State; on Obamacare, which she foretold with her work on HillaryCare in the 90s; on immigration which threatens Bill Clinton's base among working class white voters; on foreign policy which imploded on her watch?
Harry Reid's do nothing Senate protected Democrats from difficult votes, protected President Obama from the need to veto House legislation, and made it easy for "Hillary the inevitable" to avoid policy discussions. Given a steady stream of vetoes of popular legislation and a president who is disinclined to help her, she will have to show her stripes. Perhaps the Koch Brothers can fund a hash tag - #WhatWouldHillaryDo? - if the media don't demand her engagement.
This week's video from Capitol Steps is a bit long, but it is very funny.
bill bowen - 1/9/15