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Banks, energy among businesses who may gain with Republican control of Congress

🕐 6 min read

Todd Shields (c) 2014, Bloomberg News. WASHINGTON — Republican control of Congress may boost nuclear power and give banks eased enforcement of consumer laws, though it’s unlikely to yield a rollback of Obamacare over objections of a veto-wielding president.

Oil pipeline builder TransCanada Corp. may find a way to advance the Keystone XL pipeline and communications companies such as AT&T could see progress toward updating a legal framework that predates widespread Internet use.

Success on these and other items backed by U.S. business will come only from negotiations between President Barack Obama and top leaders of the House and Senate, who in January will be Republican.

“Legislative impact on business will depend on the willingness of Senate Republican leaders to negotiate with the president,” said William Galston, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The end of a divided Congress won’t open the gate for every Republican-backed bill to become law. Senate Democrats retain the power to slow bills and Obama keeps the veto pen he’s used twice.

Republicans also could wield powers from the Congressional Review Act, which lets lawmakers vote to disapprove major rules before implementation. A simple majority is required, though Democrat Obama could veto any resolution.

Here is a review of some topics that could be taken up by the Republican-controlled 114th Congress that convenes Jan. 6:

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created over the protest of Republicans and banks in 2010, might become a target as Sen. Richard Shelby takes over the Banking Committee. The Alabama Republican is likely to join House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling in seeking to limit the agency’s power to act independently of Congress, industry lobbyists said.

JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wall Street firms will find the new Congress less likely to pursue penalties tied to the financial crisis that peaked in 2008. Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, a bankers’ scourge as chairman of an investigations subcommittee, is retiring. It isn’t clear who will take over.

Republicans and Democrats disagree on fundamental questions such as whether a new tax code should raise more money for the federal government. They also must resolve which tax breaks should survive. It’s difficult to see a tax revamp becoming law before 2017, said Marc Gerson, a tax lawyer at Miller & Chevalier in Washington.

Resolving where the nation sends nuclear waste may be an issue that brings Democrats and Republicans together after Obama and Harry Reid, the Nevada senator and until January majority leader, blocked funding for the proposed nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Solutions such as promoting on-site storage or establishing regional waste sites may now be possible, said Colin Hayes, a lobbyist at McBee Strategic and former Senate energy committee Republican aide.

That would be a boon for nuclear producers such as Chicago- based Exelon Corp.

Obama could also find common ground with Republicans from the Midwest who support extending wind energy tax credits, said Michael Webber, deputy director of Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin.

Republicans probably will fall short of far-reaching goals such as blocking emissions limits on power plants proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency. While Congress may also approve legislation to approve Keystone XL pipeline, Republicans probably won’t have the votes to overcome a presidential veto.

Some lobbyists say an agreement on Keystone could be part of a broader legislative compromise.

Ending limits on U.S. crude oil exports in place since the 1970s, a step sought by Exxon Mobil and Continental Resources, may get an airing as Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, who backs exports, takes over the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Republicans may try to relieve medical-device makers such as Boston Scientific Corp. and St. Jude Medical Inc. of a 2.3 percent tax on their products that is part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. Some device companies say they have have cut jobs or research spending to offset the cost of the tax.

Hospitals meanwhile are seeking elimination of a new Medicare cost-control board created by the law.

Obama could veto either item. Repeal of the law remains impossible as long as Obama is in office.

Companies could win legal protections for sharing information about hacking threats in a bill awaiting final approval. Privacy advocates say the plan could help the National Security Agency sweep up information about innocent Americans.

Supporters of the bill say barriers to sharing information need to be eliminated so companies can prevent data breaches such as those that hit JPMorgan, Home Depot Inc. and Target Corp.

The bill has support in both parties and may be offered again in the new Congress if it fails in coming weeks.

Legislators are split on the need for new patent laws. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican and prominent voice on patent issues, has said legislation would be a top priority. In the House, Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte of Virginia also has promised to move on legislation.

Congress passed a sweeping patent law in 2011 and courts have ruled against companies whose sole business is to buy up patents and try to collect royalties on them.

Google has been pushing for changes it contends will curb abusive litigation practices. A group whose members include Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp. said further changes could undermine innovation needed to boost the economy.

Congress could move to rewrite a two-decade old telecommunications law that takes little account of the Internet.

Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T have said they welcome congressional efforts to amend communications law that had its last overhaul in 1996. Updating the law is a priority of Rep. Greg Walden, the Oregon Republican who leads the communications subcommittee. The panel is ready to begin drafting legislation, Walden said in an emailed statement.

Changes in committee leadership also might change the congressional agenda.

Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who has questioned the science behind climate change, probably will become chairman of the Environment and Public Works panel. He’d replace Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat with a 90 percent approval rating from the League of Conservation Voters.

The EPA’s scientific support for sweeping greenhouse gas emissions rules has been challenged by Inhofe in the past.

At the head of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would gain a platform for his criticism of Obama on everything from the fight against terrorism to spending on Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 fighter jets and the Navy’s Littoral Combat ship.

“We do have an obligation to work together on issues where we can agree,” Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, in line to become majority leader, said after winning re-election. “Just because we have a two-party system doesn’t mean we have to be in perpetual conflict.”

Obama was set back after the 2010 midterm elections in which Republicans gained control of the House. At the time, Democratic advisers told Obama he should bypass Congress and wield his executive powers. In January, Obama said he would look for opportunities to sidestep Congress in pursuing his agenda.

Obama has delayed some actions, for instance not issuing anticipated orders on the legal status of immigrants. His administration hasn’t issued the permit needed by TransCanada to build the Keystone XL pipeline that Republicans back.

Democrats have the option to thwart the Republicans.

“The filibuster will still be used by the minority to slow things down. The president will threaten vetoes,” James Thurber, a professor at American University in Washington, said in an interview. “It will be continued deadlock, agony and angst.”

“I drink a lot of gin when I write about it,” Thurber said.

— With assistance from Chris Strohm, Larry Liebert, Jim Snyder, Mark Drajem, Richard Rubin, Cheyenne Hopkins, Alex Wayne, Jesse Hamilton and Susan Decker in Washington.

Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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