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With a GOP-led Congress, a new Washington takes shape

President-elect Donald Trump walks with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 10, 2016.

Alex Brandon/The Associated Press

House of Representatives and Senate members return to Washington on Tuesday for the traditional swearing-in ceremony, but the tone and timbre of the U.S. legislative branch will be far different from the Congress that left the Capitol last month.

The two chambers will operate in a country and a political atmosphere that have changed dramatically from what prevailed a mere two years ago.

The big change: Republicans will control both chambers on Capitol Hill as well as the White House.

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Related: House Republicans vote to gut independent ethics office

Read more: Emboldened GOP-led Congress intent on unravelling Obama legacy

Read more: American political debate defined by stark divisions

But the Republican Party assumes its position of power with far less unity and a far weaker sense of identity than it possessed in January, 2015, when its zeal for action was modulated by the unavoidable fact that it faced a Democratic president.

And the presence of an outsider with no political experience, no long-term political allegiances, no sense of historical custom or ceremony a mere 16 blocks away down Pennsylvania Avenue skews every established political expectation and rule.

Two vital questions loom over both the Capitol and the White House: Will this new power distribution in Washington represent a new flowering of conservatism? And will the coming years be an era of renewal – or simply one of repeal, specifically of the Barack Obama legacy?

For this is one of those unusual moments in history – the ascendency of Ronald Reagan more than a third of a century ago is the most vivid recent analogue – when the president's force of personality is so strong that Congress, the 115th as historians will mark it, may be forced to march to the executive anthems rather than its own rhythms and melodies.

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For Donald Trump, who will not be inaugurated for another 17 days, nonetheless soon will be the concertmaster if not the conductor of the U.S. political orchestra.

Mr. Obama is fast slipping into the past tense, and, indeed, has scheduled a valedictory address for next Tuesday from his home city of Chicago. The Democrats in Congress will have the power merely to obstruct or postpone, not to initiate. And the Republicans in the House, who enjoy a 241-194 majority, and Senate, with a 52-48 GOP advantage, remain befuddled about their role in Mr. Trump's Washington, divided about their priorities, at odds with each other and on many of the fundamentals of government, from trade to taxes to foreign policy.

This group – some traditional Republicans, some rebels, a few actual radicals – gives the lie to the maxim of the science-fiction novelist Ray Bradbury, who once said: "Most members of Congress are politicians. They're bores." But these congressional Republicans, including seven new senators and 52 new members of the House, agree on repealing the health-care overhaul Mr. Obama forced through Congress without the support of a single GOP lawmaker – a stunning break from U.S. tradition that, until 2010, dictated that every major domestic social initiative was passed with at least some bipartisan support. This vote of repeal will be no surprise; the House voted to overturn Obamacare, as the measure has come to be known, dozens of times in the past several years.

This time, a Republican will be in the White House, and Mr. Trump is sure to sign the measure.

The only mystery is whether the repeal of the health-care law will be paired with a Republican alternative or whether the Congress leaves its replacement for another day.

A body that traditionally postpones the harder decisions is likely to do that with Obamacare. Mr. Trump has promised to come up with an alternative, and congressional Republicans will want their own proposal. Months of hearings in the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee will follow, and the exercise will almost certainly become a spectacle of behind-the-scenes and, at times overt, lobbying and deal-making. All this may not be done and dusted in 2017.

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Also on the agenda: changes in the tax code, environmental laws, trade agreements. The entire area of federal regulation will come under special scrutiny; Mr. Trump is an ardent opponent of a vigorous regulatory state, a legacy of his years in business, and his GOP colleagues are in accord with that. Perhaps the first to go: financial regulations passed after the onset of the Great Recession in 2008.

The new president may face some Republican opposition to his ambitious notions of infrastructure investments – especially highways, bridges and airports – because many party members instinctively oppose big-spending initiatives from Washington. He may find some surprising Democratic allies in that effort.

There may be other moments of Republican opposition. Mr. Trump's skepticism about dramatic changes in Social Security, for example, will collide with Republican notions of privatizing the retirement income supplement passed in 1935 in the Franklin Roosevelt era. But the new president and the new Congress might find common ground on Medicare, the health-care system for the aged, or especially Medicaid, the health-care system for the poor.

The Democrats will be able to flex their (very limited) muscles as Mr. Trump seeks confirmation of nearly two dozen top members of his executive team and, later, less prominent officials who still require Senate confirmation. Democratic senators resent the GOP's refusal even to consider Mr. Obama's selection of Merrick Garland to be a Supreme Court justice and plan no easy paths for most of the Trump appointees, especially Rex Tillerson, the Exxon Mobil chief nominated as secretary of state, and former Republican governor Rick Perry of Texas, chosen to lead the Energy Department.

Among the possible obstacles: Lengthy investigations of Trump nominees' financial affairs, and questions about potential conflicts of interest.

Also, in the next month or so, Mr. Trump will select his own nominee to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. The Democrats almost surely will throw up roadblocks to that confirmation.

Vice-President Joe Biden will administer the oath of office to the newly elected members of the Senate, one of his last duties as president of the Senate, at noon on Tuesday. The floor of the chamber will be choked with children, other family members and friends. It is one of the few tender moments in the life of official Washington, and it will end in an instant. Then the real work of the Congress will begin, along with the contention attendant to it – and only then will the contours of the new Washington take shape.

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About the Author
Executive editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. More

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