Election Sets Stage for Brinksmanship

Washington Matters

Election Sets Stage for Brinksmanship

Finding common ground will prove hard, if not impossible.

The election vaulting Republicans to power in the House and giving the GOP more decisive leverage in the Senate clearly changes the political landscape in Washington, Congress and the federal government -- but only to a degree.

There’s no doubt that the next two years will be different than the last two years. There’ll be no large push, for instance, on landmark legislation, such as climate change and immigration, or a tax code overhaul.

While Republicans were triumphant in their victories, party leaders were quick Wednesday to acknowledge that they have new responsibility and accountability and are expected to deliver. That will soon become daunting, despite large Republican pledges to slice spending, erase the deficit and cut taxes.

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Their wish list will remain more a wish than an action list. The nation and Congress remain divided -- and divided by voters’ choice. The temptation for Republicans, including dozens of new freshman members, will be to overreach, which is likely to lead to deadlock.


Perhaps most revealing in the postelection news conferences by Republican leaders and President Obama was that they all said they are “listening to the American people” and that they understand voters’ frustration with the economy, jobs and the vitriolic rhetoric of Washington. Each said they got it.

While Republicans are jubilant, they have no mandate. If they claim one, it will be largely illusory. They’ll have to compromise to get anything done on spending, taxes and job growth legislation. GOP leaders also will have to hold hands with freshly elected Republicans -- many with Tea Party backers urging them to resist any compromise on principles. A fractious Republican caucus in the House and Senate will make it even harder for leaders to deliver. So, too, will the paucity of moderates in either party.

In the coming months, look for the election competition to morph into a different kind of battle. President Obama will likely offer congratulations to Republicans in his next State of the Union address, insisting on civil debate, mutual respect and combined effort. He won’t be on bended knee, though.

There’ll be plenty of fighting over domestic spending and taxes, for instance. By definition, the president’s veto power is impressive. Republicans will have to pick and choose battles, knowing their legislative power and influence is limited.


Obama will vigorously defend the new health care law, for instance, and he’ll vow to veto efforts to repeal the big parts and planks, even as Republicans feel it incumbent on them to attempt it. Obama will agree to some domestic spending cuts, but not to large swipes at federal agencies, such as Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services. Efforts to halt remaining stimulus money will fall flat, as will attempts to strike down financial industry reforms.

Obama and Republican leaders Sen. Mitch McConnell, Ky., and Rep. John Boehner, Ohio, will aim for some common ground on energy issues, agreeing to new incentives for alternative energy use and research, as well as a pledge to clear the way, through regulations and legislation, for more nuclear power development. A large new highway bill and farm bill may be agreed to also.

Agreement will be the exception, though. There’s much pitched battle ahead. Obama will insist that Republicans remain true to their campaign promises and propose specific spending cuts and reforms of the costly entitlement programs. More easily said than done. Cutting federal spending may be the largest hurdle Republicans have before them.

One of the largest lessons from the election is that there’s no clear direction from voters, other than that they are fed up with partisanship, excessive federal debt and that they want a new course on the economy, one that leads more quickly to prosperity. The problem is that economic growth is largely outside Congress’ control, at least at this point.

The lack of a more specific mandate will dominate the next two years in Congress and the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. Washington will be largely gridlocked with both parties’ having a hand in the stalemate.