The prevailing narrative in Washington is that prospects are lousy for progress on national issues like the debt, taxes and arms control. The tough talk and body language of Republican leaders coming off their big midterm election wins suggest they are more inclined to draw lines in the sand than engage in meaningful negotiations with President Obama.
Yet there are plenty of battle-scarred veterans of Washington wars – hardly Pollyannas – who say that it’s far too early to write off the next two years as one long slog of a campaign toward the 2012 presidential election. After all, polls repeatedly show that voters are more interested in results than political gridlock, and a my-way-or-the-highway approach could trigger another economic crisis or government shutdown. Moreover, a breakthrough on one issue might pave the way for positive movement on others.
Ron Bonjean, a former senior Republican staffer on Capitol Hill and a GOP strategist today, sees a two-stage process in which Republican leaders first demonstrate their willingness to go to the mat and then find a way to reach consensus on some issues.
“They know that they need to show that the president is the one who is unwilling to work with them,” he said. “Republicans’ game plan is to be confrontational and to show Americans who elected them that they are not willing to go along with current policies. And then eventually it will give way to compromise because Obama will come to the table and be willing to give more away in order to try to court the middle.”
Patrick Griffin, who was former President Bill Clinton’s top liaison to Capitol Hill after the 1994 elections, in which the GOP won control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, only to begin losing ground after triggering two government shutdowns, said the lessons of that period are not lost on Republican leaders. They know, he observed, that “going too far makes no sense or can be dangerous and unravel them.”
don’t want Congress passing massive trillion dollar
bills that have been thrown together behind closed doors."
There will be some early tests of whether we are headed for confrontation or occasional consensus. For example, soon after Congress returns to work following the Thanksgiving break, government funding will run out by Dec. 3 unless lawmakers can agree on an extension. At issue is whether to pass a long-term spending bill that includes program cuts and other policy changes, or simply pass a short-term continuing resolution to keep the government funded at current levels until the new Congress can deal with it early next year.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., at first championed the idea of producing a comprehensive “omnibus” spending bill for the remainder of fiscal 2011 with as much as $26 billion in cuts to President Barack Obama’s original requests. But in the wake of the Nov. 2 election, in which Republicans took back control of the House and narrowed the Democrats’ majority in the Senate, McConnell now says he opposes that plan.
“If this election showed us anything, it’s that Americans don’t want Congress passing massive trillion dollar bills that have been thrown together behind closed doors,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “Americans want us to take our time and get things right. And they want us to spend less.”
After signaling interest in writing a comprehensive spending bill before the end of the year, Democrats are now looking at a short-term continuing resolution as well, as a practical way to fund the government now and postpone big decisions. Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., initially wanted an “omnibus” funding bill, but she now is looking at a continuing resolution – although probably a longer-term bill than McConnell would like.
He is for nuclear [energy], we are for nuclear. He is for free trade.
We are for free trade. He is for less spending. We are for less
spending. Who is on the other side of all those issues? His party."
McConnell’s spokesman, Don Stewart, in an interview with The Fiscal Times, ticked off a number of issues on which he said agreements are possible between the GOP Senate leader and Obama. On the issue of extending the expiring Bush-era tax cuts, for example, he said, “That is going to happen one way or another — there is going to be agreement on that.” As for spending and the use of special earmarks that the Republicans have barred for the next two years, Stewart said, “I don’t know that the president is arguing for an [omnibus spending measure] that has earmarks in it. His rhetoric [allows for] no earmarks."
“The president is for clean coal [technology]; we are for clean coal. He is for nuclear [energy], we are for nuclear. He is for free trade. We are for free trade. He is for less spending. We are for less spending. Who is on the other side of all those issues? His party,” Stewart said.
One indication of potential agreement happened last week, when six Senate Republicans joined six Senate Democrats to urge the Senate Appropriations Committee to provide $5.1 billion of assistance for low-income citizens to heat their homes this winter. Without the federal money, states would be forced to cut the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program grants by 40 percent, the dozen lawmakers said.
Bonjean said that the biggest conundrum for Republicans will be deciding whether to join with the Democrats in raising the federal debt ceiling next spring – in the face of strong opposition from the Tea Party in authorizing an increase in federal borrowing. Bonjean believes the GOP leadership eventually will go along with raising the debt ceiling.
“If they don’t vote for it — they are threatening the economic stability of the country but at the same time they need to make a statement that they are not for doing this. In the end, they will vote for it with caveats,” Bonjean predicted in an interview with The Fiscal Times.
R. Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, agrees that there is room for deal-making, but only after the two sides begin to develop some level of trust. “The president and Republicans need to figure out how to ensure some degree of mutual trust. It is kind of hard to negotiate and cut deals with somebody that you just don’t trust the whole time you are in a room with them talking. So I don’t think this path forward is easy. The prospects for collaboration will be [on a] case-by-case, issue-by-issue type basis.”
William A. Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to Clinton, observed that Republicans will feel some heat not to be perceived as simply blocking the Obama agenda. “Every single credible public opinion survey indicates that the overwhelming majority of the American people, including a lot of people who voted Republican this time around, are in favor of compromise to get things done,” Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in an interview. “The president’s stance ought to be one of the outstretched hand. He ought to keep the hand out there so that everybody can see it is extended. Voters will be able to judge for themselves who is with their desire for compromise and who is obstructing it.
“My judgment is where Republicans have a strong majority and the wind at their back they don’t have to compromise, but in most areas they are going to have to or, if the White House is even minimally [competent], Republicans will end up being tarred as the real obstructionists, which I don’t think it is going to play very well,” he added.