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State of the Union, Party Retreats Kick Off Partisan Battles

Obama will give his final State of the Union. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Obama will give his final State of the Union. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

With control of the White House at stake, Congress is poised to become a partisan battleground in 2016. And it all begins next week.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama will deliver his eighth and final State of the Union address. The next day, Republicans in charge of Congress will gather to discuss their agenda, which Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., said will present Americans with a “clear choice” for the country’s direction. And if the first week of 2016 is any indication, there are plenty of partisan confrontations to come.

Obama kicked off 2016 by announcing a series of unilateral actions to combat gun violence. Sharply critical of his actions, Republican leaders said they will not veer off course if the president seizes other opportunities this year to circumvent Congress.

Both Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell deemed the executive actions “distractions.” Ryan predicted on Fox News, “[Obama] is going to give us a distraction every single week.”

Though the president is expected to lay out a broader vision for the country rather than a litany of legislative priorities, lawmakers will get a better sense of Obama’s agenda for his final year in office when he addresses the House chamber Tuesday night. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest previewed the focus of the address as “What are we going to do with the opportunities before us?”

Ryan offered his own answer to that question, suggesting that Obama say: “‘I take it all back. The health care was wrong. We shouldn’t have done Dodd-Frank. I want to actually lower tax rates, clear out the crony capitalism and restore the Constitution to its rightful place in American life.’”

“Something tells me that he might not say that,” Ryan added.

McConnell also offered a preview of the speech, telling ABC’s “This Week,” on Sunday , “Well, look, the president is going, I assume, to talk about the future and try to paint a rosy picture where one does not exist. What we’d love to hear from the president is a real plan to defeat ISIL.”

GOP Reps. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania and Bill Flores of Texas, who represent opposite ends of the GOP spectrum, had the same answer when asked what they were looking for the president to address: national security.

“If he talks about national security, we’re ready to engage with him on this. Because it is the No. 1 issue we’ve got today,” Flores said. “If he stands up there and gives us a vision for how he’d like to work with us to address this, we’ll be there.”

Flores, who chairs the conservative Republican Study Committee, and Dent, chairman of the moderate Tuesday Group, are both members of the speaker’s advisory group, which Ryan formed three weeks after he was elected to foster party unity.

Both lawmakers also said security will likely be a topic of discussion at the bicameral GOP retreat set for Jan. 13-15 in Baltimore. House and Senate Republicans also came together at the start of 2015, the first time in a decade that members from both chambers attended the same retreat.

According to a senior GOP aide, the four themes of the 2016 retreat include: economic growth and innovation; fighting terrorism and keeping America safe; the future of health care; and rethinking poverty programs.

A draft agenda of the retreat, first reported by Politico, notes that King Abdullah II of Jordan has been invited to present a keynote address for the retreat on Wednesday. A senior GOP aide stressed that Abdullah was invited but is not yet a confirmed speaker. Other speakers include author Jon Meacham, CNBC’s Larry Kudlow and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York. Before leaving for Baltimore, Senate Republicans are expected to hold two sessions at the Capitol, meeting with Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard and discussing potential changes to the rules, with a presentation from Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., according to a scheduling notice.

In addition to national security, Dent anticipated discussing how to replace the Affordable Care Act, which the House voted to repeal this week despite a certain presidential veto, and an Authorization for the Use of Military Force against the Islamic State, or ISIS.

The military force discussion could be one of the points where the House and Senate GOP leaders diverge, as McConnell has said he does not want to pass such a measure in the final year of Obama’s presidency.

The last year of Obama’s term is also the final year in the Senate for one of his staunchest allies: Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Senior Democratic aides told Roll Call that Senate Democrats will be meeting at Nationals Park in D.C. Wednesday. House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., said his caucus will hold their retreat in Baltimore the last week of January.

The Senate Democrats’ retreat agenda is not yet clear but Reid indicated in December that he would seek to draw a contrast with Republicans in 2016, and push Democratic priorities that include improving gun safety and raising the minimum wage.

Lawmakers do have legislative business before they head out of town. The Senate returns Monday for a judicial nomination vote, and will vote Tuesday afternoon to end debate on Sen. Rand Paul’s bill that would require an audit of the Federal Reserve.

The House will also vote to strengthen sanctions against North Korea, after that country claimed that it successfully tested a hydrogen bomb. In addition, the House expects to consider a bill barring the White House from “offering sanctions relief” to Iranian individuals or banks. While the Iran measure is a highly unpopular with Democrats, members of both parties support tighter sanctions on North Korea.

Lindsey McPherson, John Bennett, Rachel Oswald and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

Contact Bowman at

Follow her on Twitter at @bridgetbhc

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