Which Candidate Can Pull Us Back from the Cliff?
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The Fiscal Times
November 6, 2012

As Washington policy experts eagerly await the election results tonight, speculation is mounting about how well positioned the candidates are to negotiate with another bitterly divided Congress in dealing with the fiscal crisis.

Regardless whether the president elect is Obama or Romney – and right now, it is way too close to call – the next chief executive must deal with another divided Congress, with the Democrats certain to retain their current majority in the Senate while the Republicans will keep a strong hold on the House.

Some experts say that unless Obama manages to win the election with a majority of the popular vote as well as more than 270 electoral votes, he will find it tough sledding trying to negotiate a deal in a lame duck session of Congress to blunt or avert the impact of more than $600 billion worth of expiring income tax provisions and automatic deep cuts in defense and domestic programs.

This is what Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the conservative leaning American Enterprise Institute, had to say this afternoon:

“Let’s say it’s 271 electoral votes and Obama loses the popular vote, then I think you’re going to get a dual Republican narrative: One is that the president only won because of Hurricane Sandy, otherwise we would have trounced him. Two, he’s not a legitimate president. And you’re going to get the same kind of drum beat that will make it more difficult I think for him to have the kind of leverage he needs. Not impossible, but more difficult.”

“But let’s say he wins 303 electoral votes and a clear cut majority – not a landslide but very comfortable and a reaffirmation of what he has done. Then I think he’s got some leverage. He has leverage anyhow in the sense of [public concern over] the fiscal cliff. And the politics of obstruction backfire on Jan. 1 for Republicans. It’s one thing to either block what the president has done and embarrass him . . . It’s another thing that in blocking [action on the fiscal cliff] you end up having terrible defense cuts that you don’t like along with all those tax cuts reinstated.”

 Steve Bell, a former Senate Republican adviser and now a fiscal expert with the Bipartisan Policy Center, says that if Obama wins, he will likely unveil his far ranging plan around the time Congress returns for the lame duck session later this month. “I think one of the things obviously he would do would be to allow the expiration of the upper income Bush tax cuts,”  Bell said, as well as look for a deal that would  raise the national debt ceiling again, well above $16 trillion.

“If Romney wins, I think you have a situation where most people say, ‘Okay, let’s give the guy a chance but they will still want to solve the AMT and the doc fix,” Bell said. In that case, Congress would likely kick the can down the road to give the newly elected president time to assemble a staff and put a plan together.

John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist with Claremont McKenna College, said that, regardless of the election outcome, Obama or Romney would both struggle with the divided Congress.

“They’re both dealing with the same budget numbers, so the difficulty of the problems does not depend on the outcome of the election,” he said. “Either candidate is going to face  a very difficult fiscal situation. Romney would have more trouble with the Senate, Obama would have more trouble with the House, but both of them would have lots of trouble with the budget.”

Brianna Ehley of the Fiscal Times contributed to this report.

Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.