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Business Leaders Hope Shifts In Congress Will Bring Tax Reform


Exit polls taken after yesterday's voting reveal an electorate deeply worried about pocketbook issues. Business groups hope the power shift in the Senate will restart the debate over major economic matters, including immigration and tax reform. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports on what's on the wish list for business leaders and how much of it they're likely to get.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Yesterday's election could mean two more years of partisan gridlock, but it could also be a chance to jump start some of the policy debates that have been stalled in Washington. Former Michigan Governor John Engler, who heads the Business Roundtable, is optimistic.

JOHN ENGLER: We're going to see, I think, a lot of activity. And I think you're going to see a Congress in 2015 - looks a little bit more and behaves a lot more like Congress used to. And they're actually going to be rolling up their sleeves and getting into the policy debate.

ZARROLI: There appears to be some common ground between President Obama and the Republican Congress, and one issue where compromise is possible is trade. President Obama has been a big backer of free trade agreements such as the Trans-pacific Partnership. But Senate Democrats have refused to give him what's known as fast-track authority, which would make it easier for the agreements to move forward. Under the Republicans, that's likely to change. Jeff Schott is a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

JEFF SCHOTT: I think what we will see early in the new Congress is congressional passage of that legislation so that U.S. negotiators can tie up the final loose ends of the negotiations and sign the agreement.

ZARROLI: President Obama's signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, remains a minefield of controversy. But the president has suggested he's willing to consider certain changes, such as a repeal of the unpopular medical devices tax. Beyond that the issues get more complicated. Both President Obama and Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, who's likely to be the next majority leader, cited tax reform as an issue where they might be able to agree. The U.S. corporate tax rate is among the highest in the world and it's loaded with complex exemptions and deductions. Steven Rosenthal is a fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

STEVEN ROSENTHAL: The bad news is Republicans and Democrats look at tax reform entirely differently. Republicans, by and large, look at tax reform as a way to reduce taxes and tax rates, and Democrats look to tax reform as a way to close loopholes.

ZARROLI: For U.S. businesses, few issues are as important right now as immigration. And the debate over the issue is already sounding acrimonious. President Obama threatened again today to issue an executive order to deal with the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States, if Congress doesn't do so itself. Tamar Jacoby is president of Immigrationworks USA, which represents small and medium-sized businesses. She says a unilateral move by the president could do more harm than good.

TAMAR JACOBY: If he goes it alone and waves a wand and gives work permits to 4 or 5 million people, the chances are that the Republican Congress is going to react with fury. And, you know, it's going to be nuclear war, basically. And in the wake of that nuclear war, there's going to be very little chance of constructive legislation.

ZARROLI: But the president made clear he is anxious to move forward on immigration and other issues as well. Yesterday's election suggests that voters are weary of the ongoing stalemate in Washington. And for Congress and the White House, the next two years is an opportunity to make up for lost time. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.