The New Congress Convenes Today. Here Are Some Of The Challenges We Face.

The 115th Congress convenes today with the swearing in of both new and returning members. The Democrats picked up a few seats in both the House and Senate, but the Republicans will maintain their majorities in both chambers.

Come Jan. 20, the Republicans will also have control of the White House. Congressional leaders, however, aren’t waiting for Inauguration Day to start pushing through the agenda of President-elect Donald Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Congress is going to move full speed ahead starting on day one. And Americans United will push back.  

Here’s some of what you can expect to see in Congress:

Hearings on Cabinet Nominees: Trump has picked many controversial figures to fill his cabinet, and the Senate, which must “advise and consent” to these nominations, will begin holding hearings on them even before he is sworn in. Americans United has serious concerns about some of these picks, and the Senate may hold hearings for two – and maybe three – of them within days of Congress convening.

On Jan. 10, the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to begin two-day hearings on U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Trump’s pick for attorney general, even though Sessions hasn’t provided the committee all of the background information he’s required to give it. Based on his public record, though, Americans United has decided to oppose Sessions’ nomination because, among other things, he has called church-state separation an “extra-constitutional doctrine” and “a recent thing that is unhistorical and unconstitutional.”

The Senate Health, Education, Pensions, and Labor Committee could hold a hearing on education secretary pick, Betsy DeVos, the very next day. DeVos’s strong support for private school vouchers is at the center of AU’s opposition to her nomination and is also likely to be one of the main issues highlighted during her hearing.

Trump’s pick for secretary of health and human services, U.S. Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), will be the subject of a hearing soon after. Price, of course, wants to oversee the full dismantling of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – which could also be voted on in January – but he particularly opposes the ACA regulations that ensure that more than 55 million women have insurance coverage for contraception without out-of-pocket costs. His claim is that the regulations violate religious liberty.

Lifting the Ban on Houses of Worship Endorsing Candidates: During the campaign, Trump promised to repeal the Johnson Amendment, a provision in the tax code that prohibits tax-exempt non-profits, including houses of worship, from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Trump has falsely claimed that the provision violates the religious liberty of houses of worship. To the contrary, the Johnson Amendment protects the integrity of religious institutions and elections. Political pundits are speculating that Congress could take up a tax-reform bill in the spring using a procedure that would prevent Senate Democrats from filibustering the measure. Last year, several bills were introduced to repeal or limit the reach of the Johnson Amendment, and any one of these provisions could be offered during a debate on tax reform.

Reintroducing the First Amendment Defense Act: The First Amendment Defense Act is a bill that would allow individuals, businesses, healthcare providers and even taxpayer-funded social service providers to ignore laws that conflict with their religious beliefs about marriage and sex. This extreme legislation, aimed at permitting discrimination against same-sex couples, also would sanction discrimination against unmarried couples, married couples in which one person had been married before, single mothers and individuals who have had sex outside of marriage. Last year, the bill didn’t advance after a House committee held a hearing on it. The bill’s sponsors have vowed to reintroduce it this year, and Trump has promised to sign it if Congress passes it.

Americans United is ready to oppose any Trump deal that threatens church-state separation.

Private School Vouchers: Trump has vowed to spend $20 billion on “school choice.” And, by picking Betsy DeVos for secretary of education, he has shown that vouchers will be at the center of his education policy. But we expect that voucher proponents’ first push will actually center on the District of Columbia voucher program, which funnels $20 million in federal taxpayer dollars to private schools. Despite the fact that the program is ineffective, lacks accountability to taxpayers, deprives students of rights provided to public school students and threatens religious liberty, pro-voucher advocates may even push expand the program. Just like in years past, we’ll lead the fight against federal voucher programs.  

Hearings on a Trump Nominee for the Supreme Court: Trump will also nominate someone to take the open seat of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Like cabinet nominees, the Senate must approve Supreme Court nominees. Trump has stated that he will use Scalia as “the ultimate example of what we’re looking for” for his new pick. We expect a fight over this nomination too.

This is only what we expect early on in the 115th Congress; there will certainly be even more battles ahead. We know Trump wants to get the deals done. Americans United promises to stand up for the separation of church and state and real religious freedom every time.