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Web Chat: The New Congress Arrives

On January 5, Brookings expert William Galston took your questions in a live web chat moderated by POLITICO’s Seung Min Kim on what the new Congress looks like, and how policy priorities have changed for both parties since the November elections.

The transcript of this chat follows.

12:29 Seung Min Kim: Hello, everyone. Today marks the official first day of the 112th Congress, and we have Brookings expert William Galston to answer your questions about the make-up of the new Congress, its policy priorities and the political implications for the next two years. Thanks for being with us!

12:30 [Comment From Bingru: ] How likely can GOP repeal Obama’s healthcare plan and succeed in the Senate?

12:31 William Galston: The Republican majority in the House can and will pass repeal legislation. The Senate won't. The Republicans will have to attack the health law through the appropriations and oversight process.

12:31 [Comment From Eric: ] Do you expect any of the legislation passed by the 111th Congress to be repealed by the 112th? If so, which?

12:33 William Galston: No, I don't. If necessary, President Obama would use his veto pen to prevent that from happening. It is possible, however, that small pieces of controversial legislation, such as health reform and financial regulation, could be repealed or modified.

12:33 [Comment From Rebecca: ] How do you think the new composition of Congress will impact President Obama’s policies and priorities?

12:35 William Galston: Simple: nothing will get done unless substantial portions of both parties agree to it. President Obama will have to shape his legislative agenda to respond to that reality. Look to his State of the Union address later this month to lay out some items on which he thinks the parties can agree.

12:35 [Comment From Tom: ] What are the potential consequences of a divided Congress on the FY 2012 appropriations process? How likely is it that the House and the Senate will pass any appropriations bills before the beginning of the fiscal year? How long into FY 2012 could the appropriations process continue?

12:38 William Galston: As you probably know, the appropriations process broke down completely toward the end of the 111th Congress. My sense is that legislators in both parties don't think that was a good way of doing the nation's business, so there will be a real effort to do better this time around. having said that, fiscal issues will be among the most contentious items this year and next. I'd be surprised if we got to Oct. 1 with no appropriations bills done, as we did last year. But I'd be amazed if all 13 had been sent to the president's desk.

12:38 [Comment From Tom: ] What kind of effort will the 112th Congress put into appropriating for FY 2011? Will they simply extend the continuing resolution and turn to FY 2012?

12:40 William Galston: No. The new Republican majority in the House is determined to reduce spending for FY 2011, not just 2012 and beyond. That's why Republicans last year blocked "omnibus" legislation that would have carried the government through to end of the fiscal year and opted instead for a continuing resolution that expires on March 4.

12:40 [Comment From Christina: ] In the next two years, what can be compromised with GOP? what can not be compromised?

12:43 William Galston: I'll bet that President Obama and his advisors are spending a fair amount of time thinking about exactly that question. We know that there won't be any compromise with efforts to repeal major accomplishments of the 111th congress such as health reform and financial regulation. On the other other, it's possible to imagine compromise on some budget issues and maybe even tax reform, which now enjoys substantial bipartisan support. Some people believe that a deal to secure Social Security for the next 75 years is there for the taking.

12:43 [Comment From Mary: ] Will the decreased focus on appropriations committees mean that federal agency heads will be spending more time prepping for investigations and oversight hearings?

12:44 William Galston: Yes, absolutely. Republicans have made no secret of their determination to make aggressive use of their new oversight powers.

12:44 [Comment From Christina: ] How will the White House staff changes affect Obama's relation with the new Congress?

12:44 William Galston: It depends on what they are. We should know pretty soon.

12:44 [Comment From Mary: ] Do you think there will be a government shutdown in March?

12:45 William Galston: No. The new House Speaker, John Boehner, regards Newt Gingrich's decision to shut down the government in 1995 as a political disaster, and he is determined not to repeat it.

12:45 [Comment From Guest: ] Do you expect the House to adopt trade protectionist measures? Will the House be expected to play an active role in the U.S. trade policy agenda?

12:46 William Galston: No. In fact, I think there's some momentum for the ratification of long-stalled trade treaties, starting with South Korea.

12:46 [Comment From Guest: ] How do you think Congress under Republicans control in the House will move to raise the debt ceiling or let the U.S. default? If they do will it cause a divide within the Republican base?

12:47 William Galston: They'll have to figure out a way of raising the ceiling, because default is not a reasonable option. Look for Republicans to attach major spending cuts to any debt ceiling resolution.

12:47 [Comment From Sally: ] How significant are the new rules proposed by Speaker Boehner? I'm thinking particularly of the requirement that bills be posted online before votes, and the changes to pay-go.

12:48 William Galston: The changes to pay-go rules are hugely significant, because they tilt the process toward spending cuts. The online posting requirement, though not trivial, is more symbolic than substantive.

12:49 [Comment From Sally: ] Are any of the new committee chairmen particularly important in setting this year's agenda? I haven't heard much about anyone but Issa.

12:49 William Galston: Yes. Paul Ryan, the new head of the House Budget Committee, will have a major impact on fiscal policy.

12:50 [Comment From Cecily: ] Given that federal aid to states, which has lessened state cuts in services and tax increases, will be almost entirely gone by next year, and that the FMAP extension will expire shortly- how likely are deficit conscious lawmakers to support further aid to debt strapped states versus allowing a state to default?

12:51 William Galston: Good question. My hunch is that Congress might step in to prevent outright default in states like Illinois. But any temporary assistance would come with very strict requirements, such as massive budget cuts. I can't imagine that this congress is going to be shoveling money to the states with no strings attached.

12:52 [Comment From Jennifer S.: ] We keep hearing that gridlock is inevitable. yet, in the last days of the lame duck, and amazing amount of bills passed, and some were controversial. Was that the last gasp of the Dem majority, or do we dare hope that both sides of the aisle have heard the message that people want action, not stalemate?

12:54 William Galston: On the one hand, it would be a mistake to take what happened in the lame duck as a leading indicator for 2011. On the other hand, a large majority of the public prefers compromise to confrontation. My guess: after an initial period of confrontation, which may last for some months, the two parties will figure out where they can and must agree. So I don't expect total gridlock for the duration of the 112th congress.

12:54 [Comment From Michelle: ] Do you think Obama should learn from Bill Clinton, being more conservative in the next two years?

12:55 William Galston: The President should and will chart his own course. But he is studying what Bill Clinton did. Clinton drew a clear line between issues on which compromise was possible and those on which it wasn't, and he made it work, substantively and politically. Obama would do well to draw a line of his own.

12:55 [Comment From Alejandro: ] We're hearing a lot about how the GOP wants to undo Obama legislation and stop Obama's priorities. We know what they want to stop -- but what do they want to start? What are the new, proactive policy priorities of the GOP?

12:57 William Galston: We'll find out over the next few months. To some extent it's a matter of terminology: Republican officials and their supporters believe that a U-turn on fiscal and budgetary issues is a substantive priority, not merely a reaction to the past two years.

12:57 [Comment From Gilbert: ] Earmarks? Will they continue?

12:58 William Galston: Not in this Congress. At least not officially. There may be some behind-the scenes deals, but nothing in writing.

12:58 [Comment From Elizabeth Creel: ] What are your thoughts about funding for foreign assistance (the State and Foreign Operations budget)? Will funding for the front line states (Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan) be protected? What about funding for the President's priorities (global food security, global health, and climate change)?

1:00 William Galston: This is a tough question, because it will force Republicans to choose between their national security commitments and their fiscal concerns. I can't imagine that the new House majority would risk being accused of undermining the war effort. I can imagine that they would reduce funding for civilian reconstruction in Afghanistan, which doesn't seem to be working out very well.

1:00 Seung Min Kim: And that's it. Thanks for joining us today, and a special thank you to Bill for answering all those questions.

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