The U.S. Congress returns to work Wednesday after last week’s midterm elections that saw Republicans win control of the Senate and expand their majority in the House of Representatives. Many of President Barack Obama’s fiercest opponents are preparing to assume powerful positions in the chamber, which has been under Democratic control since 2007.
Scaffolding blankets the exterior dome of the Capitol building, where workers toil on a two-year restoration project. Change is also afoot inside the landmark structure, as Republicans prepare to assume control of the Senate in January.
The Senate top Republican, Mitch McConnell, will become majority leader and decide which bills are debated on the floor.
Many of those bills will have been approved by Senate committees, all of which will have Republican chairmen. The Foreign Relations Committee will be led by Senator Bob Corker, an outspoken critic of the Obama administration’s plan to combat Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. Corker was characteristically blunt in his assessment of the plan at a committee hearing earlier this year where Secretary of State John Kerry testified.
“You are asking us to approve something that we know makes no sense. This does not even seem serious,” said Corker.
The new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to be John McCain, President Obama’s 2008 Republican opponent, and an advocate of a more muscular U.S. response to global crises, including Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.
“This president does not understand Vladimir Putin. He does not understand his ambitions. He does not understand that Putin is an old KGB colonel bent on restoration of the Russian empire,” said McCain.
Even with a Republican-controlled legislature, President Obama will retain authority over U.S. foreign policy and remain commander-in-chief of the military for his final two years in office.
But there are other areas of the U.S. government where Republicans will be able to exert considerable power - most notably, the budget. Only Congress can authorize federal agencies to spend taxpayer dollars. The next chairman of the Senate Budget Committee is expected to be Republican Jeff Sessions, a fiscal conservative who has opposed many of President Obama’s spending priorities.
“The unemployment bill that is before us today makes no attempt whatsoever to find spending reductions in other areas of this monstrosity of a government, but borrows every penny of it,” said Sessions.
Additionally, Senate Republicans will have the power to confirm or reject President Obama’s nominees for a wide range of federal positions, from agency heads to ambassadors to judges. Republican Chuck Grassley, who is expected to lead the Senate Judiciary Committee, has voted against scores of Obama-nominated judges, accusing many of them of judicial activism.
“Judges are called upon to decide cases based upon laws applied to the facts. Judges are supposed to judge and not have political vision because they do not run for office,” said Grassley.
With control of both houses of Congress, Republicans have a limited mandate, according to University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato.
“I would call it a mandate to check [rein in] President Obama. There is not a whole lot of governing that is going to go on in the next two years," Sabato said.
Democrats will retain Senate control for the remainder of the year, and are expected to try to confirm as many Obama nominees as possible before handing over power to Republicans.