STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
When Congress opens tomorrow, Republicans who were taking control of the Senate have many things they want to do. We're going to drill down this morning on one agenda item, one that says a lot about the direction of this 114th Congress. NPR's Ailsa Chang is in our studios. Hi, Ailsa.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Hi, there.
INSKEEP: So what is that item?
CHANG: The first item of business will be the Keystone XL oil pipeline. This is the 1,600 mile-long pipeline that would stretch from western Canada all the way down to the Gulf. It's been a cause Republicans have adopted. But there are a lot of Democrats and environmentalists who are vehemently against this project for various reasons.
INSKEEP: And of course it's been fought about for years, but why would it be the first major item that the new Republican majority would bring up?
CHANG: Well, there are probably a variety of reasons, but one reason is because it very likely will pass. The pipeline came up just one vote short in the previous Senate. Now with a new Republican majority in the Senate, it's probably going to pass.
Another reason is because Republican leaders are going to be able to force the first awkward decision for the president. President Obama has made his concerns about the pipeline very, very clear, and now if Congress puts this legislation onto his desk and says sign it, President Obama will have to decide whether or not he's actually going to veto this pipeline.
INSKEEP: So what is this battle likely to tell us about the new Senate majority leader, Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky?
CHANG: Well, it'll be the first test for McConnell in terms of how he's going to run the Senate. One of the first things that he said after the election was that as the new Senate majority leader, he would make the Senate work the way it used to, meaning robust floor debates and open amendments, which would mean both sides - senators on both sides actively helping shape bills. And McConnell has said with respect to Keystone that he would invite amendments on either side of the aisle. He would not micromanage the process even if some amendments are ones that he doesn't agree with.
INSKEEP: Well, that's interesting because Democrats, of course, even though they're in the minority, will still have a lot of power because of the Senate rules. You just laid out a scenario where Democrats might even have more influence. What approach do Democrats intend to take now that they're in the minority?
CHANG: Well, Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, has said that he will not lead the Democratic caucus in the Senate with vindictiveness, that he will not act the way he says Republicans have acted by obstructing and blocking everything that Democrats have tried to do, that he will look for room for bipartisan legislation during these next two years. But, of course, I guess we'll have to wait and see if that really happens.
INSKEEP: Well, let me ask one other thing, Ailsa Chang. We had Senator Marco Rubio, a member of the new Republican majority, on the program last week on New Year's Day. And we had a question for him about what kind of Congress he wants to see.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
INSKEEP: What is a label that you would like the new Congress to have?
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: Well, I would hope it would be a Congress that would be seen as one whose work is relevant to people's daily lives, and right now across America, that is people that are reading all this news about how great the economy's doing. But they're not feeling it.
INSKEEP: Work that's relevant to people's daily lives. Does anything on the Republican agenda fit that description?
CHANG: Some of it arguably does. Republicans are talking about reworking education. But some of it arguably does not. Republicans claim that the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which we've just been talking about, will lead to tens of thousands of new jobs. But a lot of Democrats say that's absolutely not true. It will not become the job-creating machine Republican say it will be. But no matter who's right on that issue, it's very unlikely the pipeline will have a major affect overall on the U.S. economy.
Then there's the category of stuff that's already been the center of battles that have already been fought but that will come up again, like the Affordable Care Act. Republicans say that in order to help millions of Americans, they are going to try to repeal this law again. Now, Mitch McConnell has been frank about how that may not be likely, that may not be successful...
INSKEEP: Because President Obama's going to veto it.
CHANG: Exactly. But they say that they can chip away at the Affordable Care Act in smaller ways. Now, a lot of this could still be political theater because the White House could still veto those smaller tweaks to the law. But there also could be some room for negotiation with the White House on smaller ways to change the law.
INSKEEP: NPR's Ailsa Chang. Thanks very much.
CHANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.