WASHINGTON — With control of Congress within reach, Republicans are quietly assembling an aggressive 2015 agenda built around a push for a balanced budget and quick approval of health and energy measures like the Keystone XL pipeline to demonstrate that they can govern.
At the same time, they are warning Republican members who have chafed at their minority status for years that holding the majority is no guarantee they can get all they want. Party leaders say that Republicans will need to be realistic about what they can achieve and that a high level of party unity will be essential since any Senate advantage they gain in the midterm elections is likely to be narrow.
“We need to change our mentality,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican. “Because we have been in the minority, some people are used to saying no. We need to find something we can say yes to, something that advances our agenda.”Fear of a splintered majority was a principal reason top Senate Republicans were determined to fend off Tea Party challenges to incumbents, an effort that culminated last week with primary victories by Senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Pat Roberts of Kansas, two Senate veterans considered team players.
Still, recent House chaos that preceded a Republican agreement on border funding underscored anew the challenge of rallying ideologically divided Republican lawmakers behind party priorities.
Republican leaders acknowledge they will need to persuade their most conservative colleagues — including several potential presidential contenders — to be satisfied with legislative gains that might fall short of their ideals. Insisting on all their demands could leave Republicans short of 51 votes, let alone the 60 that will still be required to pass most bills.
“We are going to have to convince people that we are not going to be perfect, but let’s at least move the ball down the field and try to do things many of us have wanted to do for a long time,” said Senator John Thune of South Dakota, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.
While they try to entice colleagues on the right, Senate Republican leaders must be mindful of the potential vulnerability of their senators up for re-election in 2016 — when the electoral climate will almost certainly be less favorable to them — in presidential swing states such as Illinois, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. They also would be contending with a Democratic minority eager to exact revenge for the difficulties Republicans caused them over the previous eight years.
Political complexities aside, top Republicans say they would embrace the chance to contrast their governing skills with those of the Democrats. They said their goal would be to try to quickly corner President Obama by sending him measures that already have bipartisan support but have been sidelined on Capitol Hill. Those would include approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, endorsement of natural gas exports, repeal of a new tax on medical devices, a change in the definition of full-time work under the new health care law to 40 hours from 30 hours and a veterans employment bill.
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“I want to focus on the things that I think can actually get 60 votes in the Senate,” said Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee.
One measure that does not require 60 votes is a budget, which needs only to attract a majority and does not go to the president’s desk.
Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who would chair the Budget Committee in a Republican-controlled Senate, says his party must strike a budget agreement to have credibility as a governing party. “Failure to get a budget is not an option,” said Mr. Sessions. “It won’t be easy, but we need to rise to the occasion. We need to have a budget that is not out of balance.”
Mr. Sessions concedes that balancing the budget without substantial new revenue would require painful, politically unpopular choices, particularly since many Republicans want to increase Pentagon spending. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that balancing the budget without new revenue would require more than $5 trillion in reductions over a decade.
In preparation, Mr. Sessions has already directed staff members to pore through agency budgets to see what could be scaled back or eliminated.
“We have to be better informed about what is cuttable and what is not,” Mr. Sessions said. “This idea that the government cannot take reductions in spending is ludicrous, and the American people know that.”
Conservative groups have strongly encouraged Republicans to be ready to put a budget in place if they mount a successful congressional takeover.
“We believe the budget is the best opportunity to achieve policy goals and set an agenda that moves the debate toward the issues that favor us but also are important — government spending, government overreach and government incompetence,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity.
After four years of tension and combat with Senate Democrats, House Republicans say they are excited about the prospect of having willing partners across the Rotunda on spending, health, energy, education and taxes.
“All Republicans are interested in moving forward on these issues, and one of the first steps is a budget that is agreed to,” said Representative Tom Price, the conservative Georgia Republican in line to replace Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin as chairman of the Budget Committee.
Republicans say they would lay the procedural groundwork within the budget for more sweeping changes on taxes and in social programs such as Medicare and Medicaid by initiating an arcane budget process known as reconciliation. The procedure can protect legislation from a filibuster and its 60-vote threshold and reduce the need for Democratic support.
“There are a lot of things you can do in reconciliation,” said Mr. Thune. “It would be nice to, in the budget process, start looking at the big stuff — tax reform, entitlements — and do some of the things we just haven’t had the capacity or will to do around here for a while.”
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If Republicans came together on a major budget package, they could create an incentive for Mr. Obama to try to cut a deal with them, or in the alternative face the prospect of a grinding veto stalemate.
Even as they talk about pragmatic achievable solutions, though, Republicans also say they are likely to take an early symbolic vote on repeal of the health care law, which would face a certain veto by Mr. Obama. After that showdown, Republicans say, they could move on to more realistic proposals and changes in the law.
“If we won, I think you would see a vote for repeal, and I would vote to repeal the whole thing,” said Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky and a presumed presidential candidate. “I have a feeling he won’t sign that. Then you start trying to see what he will sign.”
Republicans say they also would like to change immigration law, though in a more incremental fashion than the approach pushed by Democrats.
During the 2006 and 2010 power shifts in the House, both Democrats and Republicans began their reign in the majority promising to allow more free-flowing debate in Congress. Both eventually reneged after the opposition made life too difficult. Senate Republicans say they, too, would try to make the Senate more functional, though they say it is unclear whether they would reverse a Democratic rules change that limited filibusters against presidential nominees.
Democrats say they hope Republicans never get to try their hand at full control of Congress. But they believe divisions among Republican factions would greatly complicate matters if they did.
“The $64,000 question is, will mainstream Republicans break from the Tea Party?” said Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the Senate’s No. 3 Democrat. “If they do, it will be good for the country and bad for the Democrats.”