Forget bipartisan kumbaya in GOP-led Congress


President Barack Obama and Republicans leaders paid lip service to the idea of bipartisan cooperation in the wake of the GOP's total congressional takeover. That era of good feelings lasted approximately 2 seconds.

Since the initial words, both sides have made it abundantly clear that the chances for significant legislative accomplishment in the 114th Congress beginning next year are pretty close to zero.

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First, Obama said he still plans to move forward soon with unilateral executive action on immigration reform that would presumably address the legal status of the current 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

That led House Speaker John Boehner to sharply warn the president that if he goes forward with a big unilateral move immigration reform he will poison the well for any congressional action on that issue or possibly any other. "When you play with matches, you take the risk of burning yourself," a defiant Boehner told reporters on Thursday.

Then there was the matter of a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Boehner and soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in which the pair also paid some traditional lip service to the idea of bipartisan cooperation. Then they promptly pivoted to "renewing our commitment to repeal ObamaCare." If that sounds familiar, it's because Republicans have already tried to repeal all or part of the Affordable Care Act dozens of times in the past.

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Even though Republicans will now control 53 or 54 Senate seats (the Louisiana race will have a runoff election next month) they will be no closer to repealing Obamacare. They would need 60 Senate votes to even get such a bill to the president, who would then veto it and send it back where it would then require a two-thirds override vote. It ain't happening.

Republicans know they cannot repeal Obamacare; but they also know their base, which feels triumphant after a wave midterm election victory on Tuesday, wants them to try to take the fight to Obama at every possible opportunity.

So it now appears that the next Congress will open in January with Republicans furious at Obama over immigration and hell-bent on hacking away at Obamacare by any means available, including attaching provisions to must-pass spending bills.

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How does passing a big corporate tax reform package that could help jumpstart a sluggish economy in which wages are not growing fit into that scenario?

Never mind that tax reform would be extraordinarily difficult under any circumstances. Democrats will demand increased revenues through loophole closings and Republicans will reject any such move.

Populists in both parties will also want a bank tax included in any final bill (as it was included in the tax reform proposal drafted by GOP Rep. Dave Camp earlier this year), a move that could complicate final passage. Then there will be the inevitable and massive lobbying fights over which "loopholes" are bad and should go.

Obama on immigration: Send bill I can sign

And there's the matter of trade deals, which both sides say they want to get done. McConnell will presumably allow a vote on fast track trade authority, which the White House needs to complete Asian and European trade deals. But Democrats and even some Republicans could stand in the way, saying the deals are bad for American workers.

That would leave Republicans with only very small-bore proposals on the economy that could conceivably get to the president's desk, including repeal of the medical device tax under Obamacare (which almost everyone hates) and approval of the Keystone XL pipeline (which most beyond ardent environmentalists like).

Neither of those things would have a big impact on the economy, which created another 214,000 jobs in October but once again failed to provide any significant boost in take-home pay for workers.

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As I wrote at greater length in Politico this week, Republicans' best hope for boosting the economy—which voters desperately want them to do—is to make sure Congress functions without manufactured crises over the debt limit and government funding.

Boehner and McConnell pledged to do this. But it might not be as easy as they think. Since Republicans lack a filibuster-proof majority, they could still view showdowns or funding the government and raising the debt limit as their best tools to force Obama to accept changes he doesn't want on spending levels and Obamacare. And the 2016 presidential race will soon begin to weigh heavily on congressional politics.

Democrats, who see a much better Senate map in 2016 and a presidential-year electorate that should be much more friendly to them, are not going to want to hand vulnerable blue-state Republicans any wins on major bills.

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And firebrand Republicans eyeing presidential bids, including Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, are going to want to demonstrate toughness to the base by taking on Obama possibly including through debt limit and government shutdown fights.

All of this means that beleaguered American voters who hope Washington can function and get a few things done next year are likely to be disappointed yet again.

—Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.