Congress: Will fiscal cliff, election results lead partisans to stand down?

Post-election, the GOP-led House still sees its mandate as tax-hike prevention. Obama and the Democrats still want to raise taxes for the wealthy. But if they don't work together, the looming 'fiscal cliff' – which no one wants to see – may doom them all.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
President Obama and supporters celebrate victory at McCormick Place, on Wednesday morning, in Chicago.

In theory, at least, President Obama’s clear election victory should – or at least could – open the way to bipartisanship in Washington.

His win may have been slimmer than in 2008, but Republicans in Congress can no longer have as their highest priority stopping Mr. Obama’s reelection, as Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell famously vowed two years ago. Nor, given the “fiscal cliff” dead ahead, can Republicans and Democrats simply stay entrenched in their partisan positions.

But don’t expect sweetness and light emanating from Washington with the dawn of a new political order, for in fact that order is not all that different than what it’s been these past few contentious years. With some notable exceptions, the lineup at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue remains relatively the same: Democratic president, Republican House, and Democratic (but not filibuster-proof) Senate.

As Jake Sherman and Manu Raju of Politico.com put it in the wee hours after Tuesday night’s election results were known, “Obama’s convincing reelection, the Republicans’ sustained majority in the House, and Democrats’ hold on the Senate only further complicate the prospects of cutting any kind of deal on expiring income tax rates, massive pending cuts to Pentagon spending, and entitlement reform.”

Take one example: raising taxes on the wealthy.

Obama still wants to raise taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year. House Speaker John Boehner is adamantly opposed, even if any tax hike applies only to millionaires and above.

Noting that voters had kept the GOP’s majority in the House, Speaker Boehner told a Republican crowd Tuesday night, “With this vote, the American people have also made clear that there is no mandate for raising tax rates.” 

“What Americans want are solutions that will ease the burden on small businesses, bring jobs home, and let our economy grow,” he said. “We stand ready to work with any willing partner – Republican, Democrat, or otherwise – who shares a commitment to getting these things done.”

That sounded like an olive branch, as did Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s comment Tuesday night when he told cheering Democrats, “I look at the challenges that we have ahead of us and I reach out to my Republican colleagues in the Senate and the House.”

“Let’s come together,” he said. “We know what the issues are. Let’s solve them.”

That was pretty much post-election boilerplate by both men, but the way ahead looks daunting in any case.

Tax rates for all Americans will go up at year’s end if nothing is done. The sequester – $109 billion in automatic cuts to defense and nondefense spending – would hit at the same time. So would sharply lower payments for health-care providers for Medicare patients.

Many analysts assert that the GOP might have taken control of the Senate but for major missteps by some very conservative candidates with tea party ties.

Matt Kibbe, president of the major tea party group FreedomWorks, is not one of those.

“While some talking heads will try to forecast the results of tonight’s election as an inevitable repeat of the last four years, I strongly disagree. Because of this election cycle and the rise of the freedom movement, the political conversation has fundamentally changed,” he wrote on the Fox News website after the election results were known. “In fact, Democrats and establishment Republicans alike discovered in this election cycle that their ticket to victory was through speaking the traditional ‘Tea Party’ language of spending and entitlement reform, tax relief and the need for a serious plan to debt reduction.”

That warning to those contemplating running for Congress (or up for reelection in 2014) may be heard and heeded by some lawmakers (particularly Republicans feeling vulnerable), but not by all,

Politico detects a “newly strengthened liberal wing” in the US Senate, including just-elected Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, Chris Murphy in Connecticut, and reelected Sherrod Brown in Ohio. Meanwhile, several centrists in the Senate’s Democratic caucus – Joseph Lieberman, Jim Webb, and Kent Conrad – are retiring.

At the same time, Politico notes “an array of moderates who will certainly be targeted in red states in 2014, such as Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Max Baucus of Montana.”

In other words, Democrats may control the Senate, but it’s unclear whether Senator Reid can get them to march off together. Some Democrats in the House reportedly are miffed at Obama for not giving them more help during the campaign, and – depending especially on how Congress deals with debt and deficit difficulties – they’re not necessarily immune from tea party pressure.

Obama may have won a clear victory, but he’s still a lame duck as of Wednesday.

Recipe for gridlock? Perhaps, but that fiscal cliff continues to loom.

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