Election's big result: Expect more Washington gridlock

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 2, 2010 

WASHINGTON — America's voters sent strong signals Tuesday that they're tired of Washington's endless partisan bickering, but newly empowered Republican lawmakers suggested Wednesday that they aren’t likely to heed that message anytime soon.

They're bracing for ugly partisan showdowns over government spending and health care, and a high probability of partisan gridlock for months if not years to come.

Republicans won control Tuesday of the House of Representatives and made gains in the Senate, where Democrats will still have a working majority.

The Republicans saw Tuesday’s results as a clear mandate for conservative change.

“I think what our friends on the other side learned is that choosing the president over your constituents is not a good strategy,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Democratic leaders insisted Wednesday that the nation didn't engage in a wholesale rejection of Obama administration policies. McConnell disagreed, saying, “They may have missed the message somewhat.”

House Republicans leaders also were defiant.

“The first order of business has got to be create jobs, and when the American people spoke last night they’ve said that the Obama administration’s agenda over the last 20 months has failed,” said Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., who’s likely to become the House majority leader.

GOP candidates are adamant that they won election to shrink government and roll back major Obama administration initiatives.

Confronting them will be congressional Democrats — their moderate ranks dramatically thinned on Tuesday — dominated by liberals eager for government to do more to ease the nation's economic pain.

As a result, "We're not about to get what people want," said Maya MacGuineas, the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group.

Instead, we're likely to get partisan gridlock.

The confrontational tone was clear from the GOP winners Tuesday night. "There's a tea party tidal wave and we're sending a message," proclaimed Kentucky Senator-elect Rand Paul.

It was equally clear in the "Pledge to America," the campaign guidebook from House Republicans, which rails against "an arrogant and out of touch government of self-appointed elites."

The pledge's centerpiece is a punch aimed squarely at the Democratic gut: It calls for repealing this year's health-care overhaul, extending permanently all Bush-era tax cuts and imposing budget discipline by rolling back most domestic spending to 2008 levels.

President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress won't go along. Forecast: gridlock.

That's not what Americans want. By 77 percent to 22 percent, registered voters want Republicans to work with Obama to get things done rather than stand firm to the point of gridlock, according to the latest McClatchy-Marist poll. Nevertheless, gridlock's coming to Congress — at least for the opening months.

Still, there are two glimmers of hope that compromise eventually could emerge. One is that as 2012 elections loom, lawmakers will remember the voters' clear mandate from Tuesday.

"Voters are saying they want something different. They're tired of a lot of the bickering," said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, which conducts the McClatchy-Marist poll.

The other catalyst for comity could be unforeseen events that frighten lawmakers into action. MacGuineas predicted that the partisan bile would ease if global financial markets resume reeling, for instance, once they see that Congress is unable to make serious dents in the budget deficit or the national debt.

For the moment, though, there's little optimism that politicians will heed the voters.

The first clash, over extending former President George W. Bush's tax cuts, will begin immediately. The tax reductions expire at the end of this year. Obama and Democrats want to extend only those that affect people with low and midlevel incomes, while Republicans and many centrist Democrats want to extend all the cuts, including those for the top earners.

The impasse should be "relatively simple to resolve," said Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas, Those decisions will be made during the old Congress' lame-duck session, which begins Nov. 15, when Democrats will still control both chambers and centrists will still be influential. Still, the debate will be rancorous and will set a tone for battles ahead.

Another sign of the times could be evident next month, when the bipartisan deficit reduction commission issues its report on Dec. 1. Any recommendation needs 14 of 18 members' consent to be sent to Congress for votes.

The commission was created as a way for warring politicians, led by out-of-office elder statesmen, to make tough decisions about changes in Social Security, Medicare and other political untouchables.

Even if the commission recommends strong steps, however, winning congressional approval of them will be difficult, as Democrats are sure to resist changes to Social Security and Republicans to refuse tax hikes. Many lawmakers just campaigned on those stands, and compromising on them now in the name of long-term fiscal discipline would ask more sacrifice than most politicians are likely to muster.

"Republicans have been pretty much in lockstep, and will probably continue to do so," on taxes and other major pledges, said John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University.

Two other consequential tests appear likely to arise early in 2011.

One will involve fiscal policy. The current debt ceiling of $14.29 trillion is likely to be exceeded early next year. Cantor wants to tie any new debt-ceiling increase to major spending cuts, setting up a showdown with Democrats over priorities.

The other early 2011 battle line is framed in the GOP's pledge: "We will immediately take action to repeal this (new health care) law."

The trouble is that several popular provisions of the new law are already in effect, and polls find that some parts are overwhelmingly popular, even if the law as a whole is not.

Democrats will fight against repeal of their signature achievement of Obama's first two years, and most have long opposed the health-care ideas that Republicans want most, such as damage limits in medical malpractice laws. That will leave Republicans to pick away around the edges.

"A lot of people who have health insurance really believe Obamacare will make their costs go up and quality go down. I don't think you stop it as much as you start picking at the things that are unpopular," said Merle Black, a professor of politics and government at Emory University in Atlanta.

If compromises surface, they'll likely show first in the 100-member Senate, where 60 votes are needed to cut off debate and at least a smidgen of bipartisanship has long been essential to success.

Even there, though, experts aren't optimistic. Many veteran dealmakers are gone. In the past two years, the Senate has lost Robert Byrd, Edward Kennedy and Joe Biden, and is about to lose Chris Dodd, Byron Dorgan and George Voinovich _ legislative craftsmen all.

Those who remain grew more timid in recent months as voters punished compromisers in party primaries.

Still, some analysts said, maybe new conciliators will emerge over time as 2012 elections get closer and lawmakers are reminded of the public's loud message Tuesday.

"People weren't voting for solutions," said Nathan Gonzales, the political editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "They were expressing their dissatisfaction."

ON THE WEB

Pledge to America

Treasury Department statement on deficit

White House statement on deficit commission

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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