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Politics

A Dismal Fall for the Democrats

And until the vote, most legislation -- including Obama’s jobs plan -- will be largely stalled.

Democrats are bracing for the worst this fall, politically and legislatively. A Republican takeover of the House seems increasingly likely. Already, 25 Democratic seats are as good as gone, and an additional 35 slots are also vulnerable, putting Republicans in line to win back the chamber.

Democrats will hold on to the Senate, but just barely. Their majority of 59 will drop by six or more when Election Day is over. While their poker hand looks meager, Democrats haven’t given up hope just yet. Still, they know the biggest voter concern, the listless economy, won’t change much in the next 50 days.

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Their best chance lies in some wild cards. Voters are angry at both parties. “The electorate is not divided ideologically as much as they are simply fed up with what they see,” says Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan election analyst. “It’s more anti-Washington than anti-Democratic.”

Some of the most popular candidates are complete outsiders, many of whom are untested either in public office or on the campaign trail and relatively unknown. A Democratic advantage in money to spend on the tightest congressional races is also a plus for the party, especially if Republican challengers in moderate districts can be successfully portrayed in an advertisement blitz as extreme, risky and out of the mainstream.

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But Republicans are far more likely to vote in November than dispirited Democrats. Turnout will be key, and already in the primaries, the Republican base is showing it is engaged and motivated.

A preelection stalemate, generally speaking, is certain. Obama’s latest jobs and business jump-start plan, including an immediate 100% write-off for business investments, permanent extension of the popular business research and development tax credit and more infrastructure spending, faces a buzz saw this fall as Congress tries to wrap up work.

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Republicans and businesses like the tax breaks but not the offsetting tax increases. A further complication: The fight over extending the Bush tax cuts on high incomers won’t be resolved easily. Hopes for a compromise were raised over the weekend when House Republican Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said he wouldn’t hold middle class tax cuts hostage in an all-or-nothing gambit. Still, expect the GOP to fight hard for an extension of the cuts for upper income earners, even if just for a year or two. President Obama isn’t likely to budge before November -- arguing against tax cuts for the wealthy plays to populist anger and deficit worries -- but a compromise in a lame-duck session is possible.

The December lame-duck session could be a busy one. In addition to tax cuts, Congress must pass a short-term adjustment to the alternative minimum tax to prevent it from ensnaring more of the middle class. It also is expected to act on a carefully crafted compromise on the estate tax, which will otherwise reset to 2001 rates and exclusions.

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What will Republicans do with their big election gains come 2011? They won’t say and may not even know. Their political and legislative strategy may unfold only after the election. But for starters, figure on a long season of more political gridlock next year as both parties and party luminaries start focusing on the run-up to the 2012 presidential and congressional races.

Obama probably won’t move to the center or tilt a degree to the right, as former president Bill Clinton did in 1994. He’s likely to run against Republican intransigence and a do-nothing Congress, especially if Republicans take control of the House and thereby share some responsibility for governing.

Adding to the standoff -- the GOP caucus will probably be riven with internal strife. Newly elected Tea Party winners, perhaps including Senate candidates Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ken Buck of Colorado and Joe Miller of Alaska, aren’t likely to agree easily with more moderate GOP winners, such as possibly Mike Castle of Delaware or Mark Kirk of Illinois -- or, for that matter, with less strident GOP leaders.

The largest legislative challenges, including entitlement reform, a tax overhaul, deficits, immigration, even a farm bill and a big new surface transportation bill, all will be difficult, putting Obama and congressional leaders of both parties to the test in what clearly will be a partisan atmosphere.

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