What’s in store for Congress in 2016?

As President Obama enters the last full year of his presidency, he'll have to contend with a sixth straight year of working with a Republican-led Congress over key conflict points, such as Obamacare, the war on Islamic terrorism, Guantanamo Bay, and Syrian refugees. With a look ahead at 2016 on Capitol Hill, NewsHour Political Director Lisa Desjardins joins Hari Sreenivasan

Read the Full Transcript


    2016 will be the last full year of the Obama presidency, and the president's sixth year in a row working with a Republican Congress.

    Already, Republicans say they plan to try again to repeal Obamacare. The president's handling of the war on Islamic terrorism, the Guantanamo prison, and Syrian refugees are other expected conflict points. Though, there may be more agreement on criminal justice reform and trade treaties.

    Joining me now from Washington to look ahead at the agenda on Capitol Hill is NEWSHOUR political director Lisa Desjardins.

    So, Lisa, just had your story in the middle of the week about the "do something" Congress. We did get some stuff done on highway transportation funding and making some tax cuts permanent. But as we start the New Year, it looks like the repeal of Obamacare will actually land at the president's desk.


    So, that's right. They're starting with some contention on one of the biggest political issues but, of course, we expect a veto on that. Republicans, probably, Hari, will try to pass more repeals. It's good for them in an election year and it's obviously something they feel strongly about.


    What does it look like in terms of things they do want to get accomplished?


    Here's the good news. There are some major pieces of legislation to watch this year.

    I think the biggest one by far is criminal justice reform. Two reasons I think that we will see major reform this year or that it's likely, one is that want way our prison system works right now, Hari, about two million prisoners, as you may know are, in American prisons right now. Of those, the vast majority are in state prisons. That's red states and blue states. They're paying $20,000 a prisoner, and that's been crippling state budgets.

    Red states have been trying to look for a way to reform the system. All that at the same time as there's an increasing recognition that all of these Americans in prison has a long-term devastating effect on families and ultimately on the economy, on education.

    So, wrapping all that up, what that gets us to is a place where some staunch Republicans in Congress, like John Cornyn of Texas, and President Obama in the White House, all want to fix the system.

    They've proposed a bill, Hari, that does a lot of things. Two big points on it: one, it would roll back that three strikes rule where if you get three strikes drug crimes, you'll have mandatory life sentence. It cancels that. And the other thing it does is that it will review the sentences for most all federal prisoners and allow some of them to spend a quarter of their sentence at home if they're thought to be nonviolent.


    All right. And this doesn't happen in a vacuum, as you pointed out. This is an election year. How does that affect the legislative agenda?


    Well, actually, I'm going to hold up a little tell here — a little show-and-tell. This is the House calendar and that is affected by the election year. There are four months the House will be mostly gone, and that's to run for reelection, most of July, August, much — almost all of October, and November, lawmakers will not be here. Their primary job this year, as many of them see it, is probably to be re-elected.

    I think we will see them raise some issues, especially Republicans, that they think help them, and maybe help their presidential chances. Because, Hari, the Senate is a place that Republicans are a little bit worried. They're concerned that there's a chance that if things go Democrats' way in general, they could lose the Senate.

    So, watch House Speaker Paul Ryan, Hari, speaking to him and his staff, I know he's going to try to put forth a very serious agenda, perhaps on things like education, health care. I don't know that things will be passed, but he wants to try and show that Republicans have policy ideas which is something he and I think other leaders are now admitting has been a problem in the past few years.


    What about the prospects for a trade deal that we heard so much about this year?


    It's going to be fascinating to watch that, Hari. The president needs a majority vote in both the House and Senate, but already Senate leader Mitch McConnell said he doesn't think the vote will come before the election. Maybe not until there's even a new president in office. So, it's going to be touch and go but we're going to watch it closely all year.


    All right. The NEWSHOUR's Lisa Desjardins joining us from Washington — thanks so much.


    My pleasure. Happy New Year.

Listen to this Segment