Tablet Opinion

New Congress probably won’t fix health care, taxes

The question of the day is, what difference would a Republican Senate make?

Regardless of whether it’s preferable for Congress to enact bipartisan laws, the moderates who produce them are so rare that only partisan legislation is likely to be considered.

Getting such laws passed, though, requires that one party control not just the House and the Senate but also the White House. In a world where you need all three, having two as opposed to one doesn’t matter much.

The need for greater control is especially the case in the Senate, where at least 60 votes are generally required to get anything done. The Republicans could use a process called reconciliation to pass budget-related bills with just 51 votes, but even then the legislation is subject to a presidential veto, which takes 67 votes to overturn.

And while it’s true that a noticeable number of Senate Democrats are moderates, their votes will not be so easy for Republicans to obtain and are probably not sufficient to assemble a veto-proof majority.

So anyone who expects a Senate shift to produce broad tax reform or immigration reform over the next two years is likely to be disappointed.

Tax reform is easy to say and hard to do; immigration reform is slightly more plausible but still very unlikely in the polarized environment. So what might happen?

One bad scenario is another outbreak of fiscal drama. Next spring the debt limit, the doc fix and other fiscal cliffs will be back.

Many newly elected members of the House and Senate may be itching for a cliff-linked fight.

Even without cliffs, fiscal issues will create tensions. The temporary budget deal that Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan shepherded through Congress last year alleviated pressure on the discretionary budget, but that pressure will come back in force in 2015 and 2016.

The caps on both defense and non-defense spending will become increasingly difficult to meet as time marches on.

What about health care? Votes to repeal Obamacare may be inevitable, but they will not have sufficient support to override the inevitable presidential veto. Republicans may do better with targeted legislation aimed at provisions that are unpopular with a number of Democrats.

A final item that becomes somewhat more likely with Republican control of the Senate is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an international trade deal that has been languishing.

Providing trade-promotion authority and ratifying the TPP, once the international negotiations wrap up, could let Republicans demonstrate effectiveness on an issue that happens to split the Democrats.

Mostly we should expect continuation of not very much from Washington. Inaction, to be sure, is better than drama.

Peter R. Orszag is a Bloomberg View columnist who was previously President Barack Obama’s director of the Office of Management and Budget.