Expectations collided with reality last week as the new Republican-led 114th Congress took control.
In the wake of the GOP’s landslide victory in the November mid-terms, Republican leaders and President Obama appeared poised for some sort of rapprochement. Both sides seemed eager to demonstrate that even with divided government the two sides could actually achieve some mutually desired goals – primarily in the areas of trade, tax reform and infrastructure.
With the GOP back in charge of both chambers for the first time in eight years, newly ensconced Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) were also determined to dial back some of the president’s more controversial executive orders – beginning with his latest declaration granting nearly five million illegal immigrants protection from deportation.
Much of this may still come to pass. But in a revealing first week of the new Congress, unexpectedly rocky events suggested that this new GOP-White House partnership may not work out exactly as it was envisioned. Here are four important takeaways:
John Boehner Is on a Very Short Leash
Boehner has had more than his share of bruising conflicts with the Tea Party-Libertarian wing of his caucus over the past few years, and was embarrassed two years ago when 12 Republicans openly voted against him when he sought a second term as speaker. Last Tuesday’s debacle – in which twice as many conservative members rebelled against him -- signaled that Boehner is in even deeper trouble with conservatives than anyone imagined.
The three ringleaders were conservative gadflies Louie Gohmert of Texas and Ted Yoho and Daniel Webster of Florida. If anyone of greater stature had tossed his hat in the ring, it is likely that the conservatives could have blocked Boehner’s election on the first ballot. The leadership tried to paper over the differences after the election. But there is little doubt Boehner must tiptoe gingerly around the right-wingers in his party – and could have trouble serving out his entire term.
Already there are signs that Boehner is pulling back in deference to his right flank, including his declaration last week against a proposal to raise the 18.4-cent federal gas tax to shore up the Highway Trust Fund.
Mitch McConnell May Have More Ambitious Plans Than We Thought
He was far from gracious to President Obama and the Democrats in his first major floor speech after becoming majority leader, but McConnell projected an air of self-confidence and a conservative vision for his party that suggested he will be the driving force on Capitol Hill in the coming months.
McConnell once was known as “Doctor No” because of the intensity with which he opposed the heart of President Obama’s legislative agenda. Yet he occasionally demonstrated a gift for stepping in and forging critical last minute deals.
Last week, McConnell touted his skills as a deal maker. And in a few surprising punch lines to his floor speech, he hinted that he might be open to resurrecting long-moribund talks with the administration over a “Grand Bargain” – one including Social Security and Medicare reforms, and steps to achieve a balanced budget.
Obama is Talking Softly but Wielding a Big Veto Pen
Since returning from his Hawaiian family vacation, President Obama appears to have a lot more spring in his step – and steel in his spine.
Obama seems to be telegraphing a willingness to take on the Republican Congress, and to bat down their salvos if the two sides are unable to reach accommodations on the latest hot-button issues.
Obama’s approval ratings are back up to a respectable level – around 46 percent, according to a recent Gallup survey. By mid-week, the White House had threatened a total of three vetoes against top-priority legislation of the new Congress, including a bill subsequently approved by the House on Friday that would circumvent the president’s authority by approving construction of the Keystone pipeline.
The other veto threats relate to a proposed change in the Affordable Care Act and a delay in a key provision of the 2010 Dodd-Frank that tightened regulation of the financial services industry. Throughout his six years in office, Obama has vetoed only two pieces of legislation – and both of those were relatively minor.
Now he seems more than willing to dust off his veto pen and reject GOP-inspired legislation when he views it as a direct assault on his most cherished policies. With Democrats backing him up on most of these issues, it will be impossible for either chamber to override his veto – beginning with the Keystone pipeline bill.
The Fight Has Begun Over Who Deserves Credit for the Economic Recovery
President Obama did a few victory laps last week in Michigan and elsewhere to crow about the economic recovery. The economy is humming along, the deficit is down, the stock market is up and on Friday, the Labor Department reported that employers created 2.95 million jobs over the past 12 months, including 252,000 in December alone. That last number made 2014 the best year in terms of job creation since 1999, and made it increasingly difficult for Republicans to continue voicing their “Where are the jobs?” refrain when criticizing the president’s handling of the economy.
The criticism had plenty of salience in years past, when the recovery proved slow and halting. But rather than acknowledging now that Obama’s policies may have had some benefit in pulling the country out of the recession, Republicans have begun experimenting with themes suggesting that they deserve much of the credit.
In his speech last week, McConnell said, “We’re finally starting to see some economic data that can provide a glimmer of hope” and that the uptick appears to coincide with the biggest political change of the Obama administration’s long tenure in Washington: the expectation of a new Republican Congress.”
Historically, presidents and their party have usually benefited from a strong economy. But the Republicans dearly want to see one of their own in the Oval Office after the 2016 election, and they will also face a very tough contest for control of the Senate.
That means that when it comes to the economy, whether or not credit is due, the GOP won’t be giving any to the president.
The Fiscal Times’ Rob Garver contributed to this article.
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