After years of gridlock in Washington, American business is gearing up for a major push on long-sought goals like an overhaul of the corporate tax system, building the Keystone XL oil pipeline, lighter environmental and financial regulation and winning congressional backing for trade deals with Asia and Europe. Business interests face a much more receptive audience now that Republicans are poised to control both the House and Senate next year.
But despite plenty of public talk of more aggressive action — like a rollback of the Affordable Care Act or the Dodd-Frank rules passed after the financial crisis — lobbyists, experts on Wall Street and political veterans say the actual legislative agenda will be much more limited.
“There is a pent-up demand for legislative action, and there was a logjam because of the campaign,” said Bill Miller, a veteran lobbyist and senior vice president at the Business Roundtable, which represents a wide cross-section of the biggest American companies.
“The three issues we’ve got teed up now are corporate tax reform, then immigration reform, as well as getting new trade agreements passed.”
Richard Shelby, right, expected to head the Senate Banking Committee, is a critic of financial regulation.
While many of the more conservative Republicans elected on Tuesday made their opposition to the Affordable Care Act a touchstone of their campaigns, there is much less appetite on the part of business leaders for wholesale changes to the health care law.
For one thing, many of the insurance exchanges are finally working well, and businesses have adapted to the new landscape. Even more important, added demand from the newly insured is likely to increase profits in sectors like hospitals, pharmaceuticals and medical devices.
“Anything regarding the Affordable Care Act is going to be a stretch,” said John K. Lynch, regional chief investment officer for Wells Fargo Private Bank.
Similarly, insiders in Washington and on Wall Street say any effort to reverse the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul or completely defang the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is unlikely to succeed.
Not that some opponents won’t try. Senator Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican who is slated to be the next chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, has called the bureau “the most powerful yet unaccountable bureaucracy in the federal government.”
One possible compromise might be the creation of a five-member panel of commissioners to oversee the bureau, experts said, much like the ones that oversee the Securities and Exchange Commission and several other regulatory agencies.
“There will be a lot of hyperbole and table-pounding, but the outcome will be incremental, not overwhelming,” said Steve Bartlett, a former Republican lawmaker from Texas who served as chief executive of the Financial Services Roundtable, an industry group, from 1999 to 2012. “The C.F.P.B. isn’t going away, and I’ve told companies that.”
Business leaders sounded an optimistic note in the wake of the election Wednesday, while also acknowledging that Washington may not change its ways.
“There’s been dysfunction for the last several years in the leadership of both political parties and both branches of government,” said Doug Oberhelman, chief executive of Caterpillar.
“People are fed up, and this should be a wonderful wake-up call for our leaders,” he said. “Both parties should hear it, and if they don’t we’re headed for a really big tidal wave in 2016.”
After pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the most expensive midterm election in history, corporate donors are eager to see their agenda tackled by a party that has traditionally been much more sympathetic to big business.
“With the Republicans controlling both houses, the corporations that have been financing their campaigns for years are going to expect to see a return on their investment,” said Robert J. Shapiro, who was a top Commerce Department official in the Clinton administration and is now chairman of Sonecon, a Washington economic and security consulting firm.
He foresees a big push to lower the corporate tax rate while closing some loopholes so that the package does not reduce overall revenue for the government.
American companies have also been pressing Washington for a deal that would let them bring back profits earned overseas without incurring the current 35 percent federal tax rate on corporate earnings.
Known as repatriation, advocates say it could bring back the roughly $2 trillion in earnings companies have stashed abroad for new investments or dividends in the United States. As with the rest of corporate tax reform, broad changes in tax law like this have proved elusive in the past, but President Obama has suggested a possible deal in which some of the revenue from that move would be used to help finance investments in infrastructure projects.
“There’s a great desire for it, and the idea of tax reform is great, but the details are really tough,” said Tony Fratto, who served in the White House and the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush, and is now a top communications consultant for companies like G.E. and several major financial services firms at Hamilton Place Strategies in Washington.
In addition, any tax break for business would be a tough sell at a time when many Americans remain frustrated with the economy and have not profited much from a booming stock market or surging corporate profits.
“The beneficiaries will be multinationals with business overseas,” Mr. Fratto said. “I believe it would help the economy but it’s hard to explain politically.”
In theory, new trade deals with Europe and Asia have support from the White House and many Republicans, but rounding up the votes to pass them will also prove politically difficult.
An overhaul of immigration laws is an even tougher issue because there are deep divisions within the Republican Party on how to change the system, Mr. Shapiro said, with the conservative base at odds with the desire of business to make it easier for immigrants to establish legal status in the United States.
By contrast, there is more of a common denominator among Republicans on easing government supervision of business. “Both the Tea Party types and the establishment wing of the Republican Party agree on wanting less regulation,” Mr. Shapiro said.
The Republican takeover of the Senate is likely to sharpen debate on a number of energy issues, and, with support from several Democrats from energy-rich states, put pressure on President Obama to finally decide whether to allow the Keystone XL pipeline to be built to connect Canadian oil sand fields with American refineries on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
Republicans in Congress are also expected to try to curb plans by the administration to control greenhouse gas emissions by imposing strict new rules on coal-fired power plants.
Oil executives expressed exuberant satisfaction with the election results.
“The Republican-controlled Congress can start making the president make some decisions on energy matters — from the Keystone XL pipeline to lifting the ban on crude exports,” said James W. Noe, a senior vice president of Hercules Offshore, a drilling company that works in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
The Republican Senate victory is also expected to elevate Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska to chairwoman of the Energy Committee. She has been a strong advocate for enabling liquefied natural gas exports, and she can also be expected to oppose any new rules aimed at limiting hydraulic fracturing in shale oil and gas fields.
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