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Saturday, December 10, 2016

By William Douglas and David Lightman, McClatchy Washington Bureau (MCT)

WASHINGTON — Sixty. It’s the magic number for getting most things done in the U.S. Senate — and it will be the target for Republicans to get legislation through the House of Representatives, past Democratic objections in the Senate and to the desk of President Barack Obama.

Republicans will have at most 54 seats in the new Senate next January. So they’d need to gain at least six Democrats on anything controversial, to break a legislation-blocking filibuster by the rest of the Democrats.

And they might do it. From an oil pipeline to a medical tax, there are some areas where the Senate could marshal 60 or more votes. The challenge will be building a new coalition on each issue.

If Republicans move to repeal the Affordable Care Act’s medical-device tax, for example, they might lure liberal Democrats such as Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren, who voted for the repeal in a symbolic vote last year.

On the Keystone pipeline, they’d likely lose those Democrats but might look to others, based on past votes.

Here’s how it could happen.

Keystone XL pipeline

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who will be the majority leader when the Republicans take over, has vowed that the Senate will vote next year to push the 1,700-mile pipeline, which would send oil from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast. Senate Democratic leaders blocked consideration of the pipeline for two years, while Obama postponed his approval.

The pipeline picks up at least one vote with the election of supporter Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican who’ll replace retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, who opposed it. And chances are that Democrats who felt pressure to oppose, or at least delay, a vote on the pipeline won’t feel the same heat.

“The reality is you gain that vote in Iowa and you solidify all those folks who could have been pressured out of voting for it,” said Frank Maisano, an energy expert at a Washington law firm that represents a variety of industry clients.

Earlier this year, Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and John Hoeven (R-ND) introduced a bill that would approve the pipeline. Landrieu, who’s now the chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, may not return in January: She faces a runoff Dec. 6 against Republican Bill Cassidy.

But the measure was sponsored by all Senate Republicans, as well as six Democrats who are coming back next year: Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Warner of Virginia, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

Health care

Senate Democrats will block Republican efforts to kill the Affordable Care Act, but enough of them might go along with some changes in the health care law that would make it to Obama.

McConnell might move to repeal a 2.3 percent excise tax on medical devices that’s in the law, and he may have willing partners in several Democratic senators, including Warren, Klobuchar and Franken, who represent major medical-device-making states.

Last year, 79 senators — including 33 Democrats and independent Angus King of Maine — supported a nonbinding measure to repeal the tax.

“Yes, they would like to get rid of it, but I don’t know how Congress would pay for a repeal of the tax,” said Timothy Jost, a law professor at Virginia’s Washington and Lee University who specializes in health care issues.

Spending

Getting to 60 on spending bills “is one of those achievable areas,” said Maya MacGuineas, the president of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

One big reason: Appropriations Committee members have lots to trade. For example, when Congress approved its two-year bipartisan budget agreement two years ago, Democrats got more money for social programs and Republicans won increases in defense spending. The plan got 72 votes last January.

That agreement expires Sept. 30, 2015, which means lawmakers will have to start anew. In once instance their task will be easier, because Congress is likely to approve a budget blueprint for the first time in five years.

That budget, which is supposed to be finished by mid-April, has stalled because Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree. Next year that won’t be a problem, and under budget rules only 51 votes are needed for passage.

Spending bills will still need 60, but analysts don’t think that will be a problem.

“They have a history of building coalitions on those bills,” MacGuineas said.

National Security Agency

Senate Republicans and Democrats might get to 60 in changing how the National Security Agency collects data in its efforts to sniff out terrorist threats.

There’s broad bipartisan support for the USA Freedom Act, a 2013 bill sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) that would curb the NSA’s bulk collection of American’s phone records. A less stringent version of the bill passed the House on a rare bipartisan 303-121 vote in May.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) co-sponsored the bill, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said in July that the measure “sends a strong signal that a bipartisan coalition in Congress is working to safeguard our privacy rights.”

“If lawmakers are looking for a bill to vote on that could pass, this is it,” said Neema Singh Guliani, a legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Ted Cruz, Sen. Leahy and the ACLU, all supportive of the same bill.”

However, the liberal-conservative alliance doesn’t mean a slam-dunk for revamping the NSA. James Lewis, a security and technology expert for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a public policy research center, said a Republican-controlled Senate might be less inclined to place more restrictive measures on the agency, especially with the rise of the Islamic State group and recent terrorism-related attacks in Canada.

Immigration

Getting a comprehensive immigration plan, including a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people already living in the U.S. illegally, might be difficult in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Addressing immigration in a piecemeal fashion may be easier, perhaps easing the way for such immigrants to stay in the country.

Some of the key players in last year’s bipartisan effort, notably Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) have pushed for comprehensive immigration legislation for years and are expected to continue doing so. Fourteen Republicans joined 52 Democrats and two independents last year to pass the comprehensive immigration bill, which went nowhere in the House, and 13 of them will still be in the Senate next year.

Prison sentencing

Lawmakers from both parties have been working together on ways to reduce the nation’s overcrowded prison population.

Potential Republican presidential candidates such as Cruz and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio have talked about the need for change. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has endorsed the idea of restoring voting rights for some nonviolent felons and changing some drug felonies to misdemeanors.

Senate Democratic Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois and the tea party-backed Lee authored the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would cut mandatory minimum sentences for many federal nonviolent drug offenses. The Judiciary Committee approved the bill in February on a 13-5 vote.

In March, the committee voted 15-2 to approve a bill sponsored by Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, that would allow early release for low-risk prisoners who participate in job training, education and drug treatment programs.

Said Jeremy Haile, federal advocacy counsel for the Sentencing Project, an advocacy organization: “I think both bills have enough bipartisan support to overcome filibusters.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons