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8 tough issues for Congress to tackle in 2015

Republicans, still grappling with the Steve Scalise controversy, officially take control of Congress on Tuesday. Here's what they are likely to tackle.
People walk in the falling snow in front of the US Capitol, on Jan. 6, 2015 in Washington, DC.
People walk in the falling snow in front of the US Capitol, on Jan. 6, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Republicans officially take control of both sides of Capitol Hill on Tuesday for the first time since 2006. And despite promises by House and Senate GOP leaders to find areas of bipartisan agreement, the fully Republican-led Congress will still pose a major hurdle for President Obama and his party.

Republicans have already signaled they plan to take the legs out from under several of Obama’s accomplishments and executive orders. But since there's plenty of division within GOP ranks, will they be able to effectively govern and pass legislation of their own?

Overshadowing Republicans' legislative agenda, at least initially, will be the continued fallout of Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who recently apologized for delivering a 2002 speech to a white-supremacist group led by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. And Rep. John Boehner will have to defend his speakership from a handful of tea party conservatives determined to see one of their own lead the fractious conference.

The president has said he may be able to work with Republicans on issues like revamping the tax code, free trade and infrastructure spending. But conservatives will also likely encounter President Obama’s veto pen, something the commander-in-chief has only used twice during his time in office, largely thanks to the previous, Democratic-controlled Senate.

With Republicans slated to control 247 of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 54 of the 100 seats in the Senate, here’s a look at some of the hottest issues the 114th Congress is likely to tackle.

1. Rep. Steve Scalise. Republican leaders including Boehner and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy have come to the defense of Scalise, the third ranking member of the House majority.  Scalise has insisted he did not realize he was speaking to a hate group at the time and has since apologized.

Whether that support sticks – and if he can keep his No. 3 job in the House GOP leadership — remains to be seen.

Democrats are criticizing House GOPers' decision to stand by the lawmaker, with Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz saying in a statement on Monday that “as the new Congress begins, nothing discredits Republican claims of ‘outreach’ and bringing people together more than their decision to keep Steve Scalise at the top tier of the elected leadership of their caucus.” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said on Monday that allowing Scalise to keep his job says something about GOP "priorities and values" but did not go as far as to call on the lawmaker to step down. 

RELATED: GOP leaders defend Scalise's leadership position as majority whip

2. The Keystone XL pipeline. Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised that the first measure the Senate will take up in January will be the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Proponents of Keystone — mainly GOPers, labor unions, and oil companies--  have trumpeted the project, which would create an oil transport system from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. They argue the plan would generate thousands of jobs and make the country less dependent on oil from the Middle East.

Critics, including many Democrats, argue the 1,179-mile project would release dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, would have no effect on U.S. gas prices and would not bring in significant numbers of new jobs. Obama has suggested in the past that he might veto the legislation, even if both houses of Congress approve it. Meanwhile, the State Department has been reviewing the project for years.

RELATED: McConnell has a confrontational course in mind

3. Health care. In the latest GOP weekly address, Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois said the House would target Obamacare – specifically language that defines a full-time employee as someone working a minimum of 30 hours per week. In a new bill, those hours would be bumped to 40 hours per week. Under Obama’s health care plan, any businesses with more than 50 full-time employees must provide health coverage for those workers. In the last Congress, Democrats opposed similar legislation.

In addition, Davis said the House will consider legislation called the “Hire More Heroes Act,” which would exempt post 9/11 veterans who already receive government health care from being counted as part of the 50 full-time employees. Davis said the act will provide veterans a “better chance in a still-tough job market.” For his part, President Obama has yet to weighed.

After the GOP won control of Congress, McConnell said repealing the medical-device tax (which helps fund Obamacare) would also be a priority. There is currently a 2.3% tax on the medical-device industry on products it sells in the United States, including dentures, pacemakers and MRI machines. Obama hasn’t ruled out repealing the tax.

RELATED: Obamacare, Keystone XL top GOP 2015 agenda

4. Immigration. Expect a challenge to Obama's immigration legislation. The president drew the ire of conservatives in November after announcing an executive action to temporarily shield as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation.

The battle will likely come to the forefront in February when Congress must vote on Department of Homeland Security funding, which includes the major immigration agencies. Last month, Congress approved a $1.1 trillion government spending bill through September, but Republicans intentionally extended DHS funding only through Feb. 27 to give them more time to craft a response to Obama’s executive action.

On one hand, GOPers – especially those up for election or considering making a bid for the Oval Office in 2016 -- want the support of Hispanic voters. On the flip side, several view the legislation as amnesty and argue Obama was acting outside of his constitutional authority.

RELATED: How Texas could give up on its DREAM

5. The environment. Similar to immigration, Republicans have also expressed interest in rolling back Obama’s executive actions on the environment. Over the summer, Obama revealed a plan to cut carbon pollution from the country’s power plants 30% from 2005 levels by 2030. He also announced the development  of stricter, new fuel standards for heavy duty trucks.

After the GOP gains in November, McConnell  told the Lexington Herald-Leader that he feels a “deep responsibility to stop power plant regulations” and that one of his primary goals will be “to try to do whatever I can to get the EPA reined in.” And after the U.S. announced a historic, secretly negotiated deal in November with China for both countries to decrease their greenhouse gas output, Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe – who is expected to chair the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee --  said, “As we enter a new Congress I will do everything in my power to rein in and shed light on the EPA’s unchecked regulations.”

RELATED: Why Hillary Clinton is repeating herself on fracking

6. Cuba. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who is expected to chair the Foreign Relations Committee recently said on Fox News Sunday that he will hold “rigorous hearings” on Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba. Others, including Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have said they will try to block federal funds from financing a U.S. embassy in Cuba. A new ambassador to the communist country would also have to be confirmed by Congress, so expect a potential showdown there as well.

7. The budget and taxes. In addition to passing a federal budget plan. In addition to passing a federal budget plan, Congress will have to increase the federal debt limit in the spring. Rep. Tom Price of Georgia will take over for  Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as chairman of the Budget Committee. He recently told reporters that he’ll push for austerity measures supported by Ryan, which includes cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, and additional safety-net programs.

As msnbc previously reported, Republicans already introduced a controversial change to House rules that would change the way the cost of tax legislation is calculated.

RELATED: How a brighter economy changes the GOP playbook

8. Nominees. Expect somewhat divisive confirmation hearings for Obama nominees, including Loretta Lynch for attorney general and Ashton Carter for defense secretary. Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, is expected to seal the confirmation but several GOPers have promised to use the nomination process to skewer Obama over his executive actions on immigration. Similarly, Carter is expected to be confirmed and has received GOP support, but Republicans have said they’ll use the hearings to criticize Obama’s national security policy.