Yet Another Budget Battle Looms

Posted March 5th, 2013 at 9:35 pm (UTC+0)

More tough battles ahead: President Obama, pictured after meeting congressional leaders March 1, to discuss government spending cuts. Photo: AP

Government Shutdown at Stake

With the budget sequester spending cuts now slowly taking effect, the next big date on Washington’s calendar is March 27th.   That’s the day the current U.S. government funding bill expires and Congress will have to act to either renew the funding measure or reach agreement on an alternative.

The big question now is will the spending cuts totaling $85 billion be included in the new funding bill, or will a fight over continuing the cuts spark a government shutdown?  Based on recent comments from both President Barack Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner, it seems both sides are eager, at least for now, to avoid another drawn out battle over the budget.

Republicans seem quite happy to renew the funding bill through the end of the fiscal year at the end of September as long as the sequester cut remains in the final amount.  That leaves it up to the president and his Democratic allies in Congress to decide if they want to try to undo the sequester cuts or push for a package of alternative cuts that would replace the across-the-board approach that equally targets military and domestic spending.


Republicans United on Cuts

House Speaker John Boehner talks about government spending cuts February 25, after meeting with his fellow House Republicans. Photo: AP

Republicans seem to be in the driver’s seat on the issue of cuts.  They are united for once, no mean feat for a party that has had some stark moments of disintegration over the past year.  With House Speaker John Boehner as front man, Republicans in Congress have rebuffed the president at every turn when he tries to push the idea of closing tax loopholes for the wealthy as a way of creating an additional revenue stream that could be added to the mix for deficit reduction.  The Republicans are adamant that the president got his revenue increase at the beginning of the year when he was able to raise taxes on the rich.  Speaker Boehner, under pressure from stalwart conservatives inside the House Republican conference, insist the Republicans y won’t permit anything further on the revenue front.

Republicans also know they can do nothing and can still get their way.  The Democrats would have to propose an alternative set of cuts to replace the so-called sequester, and if it includes higher revenue, the Republicans will reject it out of hand.   By pushing to block or undo the sequester, the Democrats would be put in the position of risking a government shutdown, for which they would get most of the blame, something they will probably choose to avoid at this point.


Sequester Impact Long Term

Right now, the public seems to be greeting the budget cuts with a collective “ho-hum,” despite the dire warnings from the president and other Democrats. But over time things could change and so too could the public’s apathy.  Cuts that affect air travel, border security and early childhood education could have a more dramatic toll a few months down the road but probably not before the government funding bill expires on March 27th.  President Obama seems to think that public pressure later on could change the political dynamic, but it’s simply too soon to know.

Republican congressman Paul Ryan, shown here in June of 2012, is expected to present his party’s latest budget plan later this month. Photo: AP

Later this month, House Republicans are expected to release their long term budget plan that lays out a path to wipe out the budget deficit over a 10-year span.  The plan will be put forward by Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the House Budget Committee chairman and the Republican Party’s vice presidential candidate last year.


Unlike the sequester plan, the House Republican plan will deal with cuts or changes to popular entitlement programs like Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, and that could spark a negative reaction from the public.  Republicans could be in jeopardy of getting in the way of their own success by pushing too hard for future cuts just when this year’s initial cuts are going into effect, risking another negative public backlash.

In fact, both parties of late have a way of pushing their own agendas too far and ignoring the desire of much of the public to find some common ground and solve problems.  President Obama continued to push the idea of closing tax loopholes for the rich even after he got his tax increase just a few months ago.  And now I can see Republicans trying to double-down on their budget cutting success by pushing a much broader program of reductions at the public before most people have had time to digest the cuts just going into effect.


Challenges for Both Parties

Some Republicans worry that by putting out an austere 10-year plan to balance the federal budget they will be seen by the public as a bunch of sour-pusses running around and cutting everything in sight.  And they will be fighting this battle even before the dust clears in the battle over the sequester cuts.

These Republicans argue that the party must do more to project a more positive, hopeful image moving forward, especially for younger voters who are more apt to listen to politicians emphasizing a bright future of opportunity as opposed to a stark wasteland created in the cause of a balanced budget.

As for the Democrats, some moderates are wondering what it will take for the president’s party to face up to some tough decisions on entitlement programs.  As the baby boomer generation begins to retire in earnest, Social Security and Medicare will begin to strain under the weight of millions of retirees looking for benefits that they have been counting on for decades.  Any changes to these programs are politically risky, but especially for many Democrats who campaigned on protecting them in last year’s election.

The sequester cuts shielded Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which account for about half of government expenditures.  There is simply no way to move toward a balanced budget over the next 10 to 20 years without some sort of cost controls on these entitlement programs.  The problem is neither party wants to be the first to stick its toe in the water, so both sides stand on the lake shore freezing, waiting for the other guy to make the first move.







The Budget Mess

Posted February 25th, 2013 at 8:26 pm (UTC+0)


President Barack Obama meets with state governors February 25 and calls for their help in urging Congress to come up with a federal budget compromise before mandatory spending cuts March 1. Photo: AP

Chaos Ahead or Political Dud?

Welcome to “Sequesterville,” also known as Washington, D.C.  What was once unthinkable, and intentionally so, is about to become a reality.  Unless Congress and the president act soon, $85 billion worth of so-called “sequester” cuts take effect on March 1st affecting both domestic and military spending.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  The idea of mandatory cuts was included in a budget agreement in 2011 as a way of ensuring that Democrats and Republicans in Congress, along with President Barack Obama, would find a way to compromise on long term spending cuts and tax revenues that would whittle down the national debt over a ten-year span.

Democrats would be compelled to find a way to compromise to avoid the across-the-board cuts in some domestic spending programs like early childhood education and health research.  Republicans, it was thought, would be eager to find a resolution to avoid the mandatory cuts that would hit the Defense Department, especially in the areas of training, maintenance and weapons acquisition.


Unintended Consequences


House Speaker John Boehner is leading Republican Party efforts in the House of Representatives to resist the president’s call for increased revenues as part of any new budget deal. Photo: AP

The 2011 budget agreement was designed to put the issue off until after last November’s election.  Mr. Obama won a second term and Republicans then found themselves in retreat early this year on the issue of tax cuts for the wealthy.  The president got his way on higher taxes, but many Republicans vowed at that point they had given enough.  With little to show for it in terms of real budget cuts, Republicans decided to fight on the issue of cutting government spending and took the risky stance of allowing the sequester cuts to go into effect unless they get their way.  Many of these Republicans are more concerned with disappointing conservative supporters back home than pleasing political moderates who find the idea of across-the-board budget cuts abhorrent.

Many Republicans are not happy about the defense cuts.  Defense hawks like Senator John McCain of Arizona and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are urging Republicans leaders to find a way to compromise to avoid hurting national security.  But it seems conservatives in the House of Representatives see an opportunity in the “sequester” for real cuts that they might not be able to get any other way.  So for now, most Republicans appear content to let the cuts take hold and see what happens.


Public Reaction in Doubt


Both sides seem to be counting on the public backing them up on the issue of spending cuts.  The Obama White House and congressional Democrats have been hammering away at the idea that the cuts would cause a lot of distress if they go into effect, from job losses to federal furloughs, to cuts in border patrols and long lines at airport security.  On the other hand, Republicans are counting on the public not noticing much of anything once the cuts go into effect, figuring that without public pressure the cuts will be more or less accepted and they can claim a major political victory.

The polls show Republicans are more vulnerable than the president right now in terms of who would be blamed for the cuts if they lead to significant disruption.  And going back to the government shutdown faceoff back in 1995 and 1996, Republicans bore the brunt of the blame while President Bill Clinton emerged as the big winner.  The risks this time seem even greater for the Republican side.  However, if they are correct and the public reacts to the sequester cuts with a big “so what?”, then they will have called President Obama’s bluff and may be in a position to push for additional cuts in the next fiscal year beginning October 1st.


Smoke and Mirrors


Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is guiding the Republican budget process in the Senate. Photo: AP

Expect a lot of congressional debate and posturing this week, but analysts say it is unlikely that the two sides will be able to agree on an alternative strategy that will avoid the sequester cuts.  Democrats want a combination of closing tax loopholes for the wealthy and modest spending cuts, while Republicans might favor an alternative that is less harsh on the Pentagon.  But none of the alternatives now floating around Capitol Hill are likely to win enough bipartisan support to avert the sequester cuts.

Despite all the sound and fury expected this week on the Hill, it looks like both sides will spend most of their time trying to apportion blame in advance of the sequester.  Democrats will talk up the impact on real people, while Republicans will frame it as a key down payment on real spending cuts.  They will spend more time on the “blame game” than a fix, the latest example of how political polarization has led to political dysfunction in Washington.

The spending cuts will go into effect March 1st, but the next key date on the calendar may be March 27th.  That’s when the current temporary funding authority granted by the Congress is scheduled to expire, requiring lawmakers to act to keep the government operating.  Some analysts predict that if the budget sequester cuts remain in effect through March, it’s likely they will remain in place all the way through the end of the fiscal year through September.  Though it would also seem risky since the longer the sequester cuts take hold, the more the public is likely to notice and express outrage.

The eerie thing about this budget showdown is that neither side seems sure the public is with them.  They are willing to take a chance on letting things play out.  That means the public will likely turn the tide one way or the other, either through outrage or indifference.  At the moment, there is no shortage of opinion in Washington on how that will turn out.  The problem is they are just that—opinions—and nobody really knows for sure.    Buckle up!

Budget Showdown Looming

Posted February 19th, 2013 at 8:00 pm (UTC+0)

President Obama urges Congress on February 19, to complete a budget agreement before March 1, when severe automatic budget cuts are set to begin. he is flanked by fire and police personnel, who would be affected by severe budget cuts. Photo: AP

Major Stakes for Both Parties

Shakespeare once noted that Julius Caesar should beware the Ides of March, but this year it looks like March 1st  —  not the 15th — is the date to be reckoned with.  That’s when the so-called budget sequester cuts go into effect unless Congress and President Barack Obama can agree on a different set of cuts to satisfy the need to reduce the budget deficit.

The president has stepped up his warnings about the impact of the mandated sequester cuts, warning that they would lead to furloughs for key government employees like FBI agents, and reduced hours for Border Patrol agents, airport security officers and air traffic controllers.  The $85 billion in cuts is roughly split between domestic and military spending and the president noted that the threat of the cuts going into effect has already caused the U.S. Navy to delay the deployment of an aircraft carrier that was headed to the Persian Gulf.


Republicans, led by House Speaker John Boehner, are standing firm in the budget negotiations, insisting on sharp spending cuts no additional taxes. Photo: AP

Budget Blame Game

With only days to go until the sequester deadline, both sides in the faceoff seem more focused on who is likely to get blamed if the cuts go into effect rather than how to stop them.  The basic breakdown goes like this.  Democrats believe they have the upper hand because they are confident the public will eventually blame Republicans for the standoff, especially once the cuts go into effect and the media begins to focus on the impact.  Republicans, on the other hand, think they have an advantage because they believe the public is still adamant about cutting the deficit, especially after President Obama got his way and raised taxes on the wealthy earlier this year.

I don’t think either side is sure which party will get the blame, or if voters will simply decide they are both responsible and distribute blame equally.  I think Republicans are taking a bit more risk because public polling seems to show they are often blamed more than the Democrats for the dysfunction in Washington.  But Democrats may be counting too much on some sort of public outrage to kick in once the cuts go into effect.  Government agencies probably wouldn’t have to begin furloughs for at least a month or so, and that could leave a lot of voters wondering what all the fuss is about if they don’t see any immediate effect on government services.


It Will Never Happen

The sequester idea came about in August of 2011 as a way to force Congress to reach a deal on deficit reduction.  The thinking was that lawmakers might not reach a compromise unless they were threatened with the prospect of harsh mandatory cuts that would go into effect unless they reached a budget agreement.  The pain was to be distributed roughly equally between the military and domestic spending.  The idea was that Republicans would be loath to accept the defense cuts while Democrats would be spurred to act by the threat of cuts to programs funding early childhood education and public safety.

Well, apparently both sides underestimated the level of political dysfunction and polarization in Washington.  Tea Party Republicans came to town beginning in 2010 committed to the idea of shrinking the size and role of the central government.  They believe the Obama White House is incapable of backing real budget cuts so they have decided the sequester cuts, as severe as they are, are their best option to declare an initial victory in their war against spending.

Democrats were convinced that the president’s re-election last November and their gains in both the Senate and House of Representatives had shifted the political equation on the sequester cuts in their favor.  They thought Republicans would cave on going through with the cuts because they would be fearful of public opinion.  Well, it turns out, at least so far, that most Republicans are still more fearful of conservatives on their right and they would rather risk negative reactions from moderates than set off a conservative primary election challenge against them in their homes state or congressional districts.

Mr. Obama and the Democrats want any new deficit-cutting deal to include ending some tax loopholes for the wealthy as another way to increase revenue into the government coffers.  But Republicans seem determined to fight that.  They argue the president got his revenue bump earlier when he was able to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for all except those making more than $450,000 a year.   Republicans want to keep this battle squarely on the issue of government spending.

Does the public think spending can be cut?  The polls say yes.  But as always, the devil is in the detail of which programs you are trying to cut and how.

So here we are.  Two trains headed down the track straight at each other.  Neither engineer seems about to blink, nor are their hands near the brake.   Brace for impact.



State of the Union Preview

Posted February 8th, 2013 at 9:11 pm (UTC+0)
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President Barack Obama is set to deliver his latest State of the Union address to Congress Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013. He is shown here delivering the State of the Union speech in 2011. Behind him are Vice President Joe Biden (L), and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R). Photo: AP

Obama’s Pitch on Guns and Immigration

President Barack Obama gets down to business with Congress Tuesday night as he delivers the annual State of the Union message before a joint congressional session in Washington.  The president’s speech is expected to focus on his legislative priorities for this year, especially his push for new gun control measures and immigration reform.

The gun issue was forced into the national spotlight by the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in December.  The administration and congressional Democrats seem to be focused on a range of ideas from improving and expanding background checks for gun purchasers to calling for a renewal of the ban on military-style assault weapons and limits on high capacity magazines.

Most of the attention at the moment is focused on expanding the background check system, which even some Republicans seem open to.  The assault weapons ban still seems like a long shot, but I think the administration and liberals in Congress believe they have to make a push for it even if it looks doomed in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.  But the bottom line on guns is there seems to be a modest consensus building in Washington that something could actually get done on background checks this year, which is significant given how politically toxic the gun issue has been for Democrats for the past several years.

Don’t forget that the passage of the initial assault weapons ban by a Democratically-controlled Congress in 1994 contributed to the Republican takeover of both the Senate and House of Representatives in November of that year.


Immigration Reform Push

The other area that looks promising this year is the prospect for some kind of immigration reform that would offer most immigrants who are now in the country illegally a path to eventual citizenship, though how tortured and drawn out that would be remains a key point of contention.  The key on this again is Republican involvement, and a bipartisan group of senators that includes Florida Republican Marco Rubio and Arizona Republican John McCain is putting forward a serious proposal that ties improvements in border security to any formulation that would offer immigrants a path to citizenship.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida is trying to moderate his party’s views on dealing with undocumented immigrants. He also has been chosen to respond to the president’s State of the Union speech and is widely viewed as a possible Republican presidential candidate in the 2016 elections. Photo: AP

The fact is, many Republicans, especially in the House, still see the words “a path to citizenship,” and to them it spells “amnesty” — something they vowed never to let happen.  But the election results from November paint a dire picture for Republicans without some sort of movement on immigration reform that they could use as an opening to at least make a pitch to Hispanic voters for consideration in upcoming elections.  President Obama winning 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in his matchup with Mitt Romney last November is one of those glaring numbers that seems to scream “permanent minority party unless Republicans can find a way to be more competitive.

Expect both gun control and immigration reform to be the focus of the president’s public pitch for support during the State of the Union.  But it’s also expected he will issue dire warnings about allowing the so-called federal budget sequester cuts to take effect on March 1st.

Both political parties are talking about trying to head off the automatic cuts to military and domestic spending that some economists warn would have dire consequences for the economic recovery.  But you also hear an awful lot of Republicans talking about how they might be just as happy to let the cuts take effect and brag to their constituents back home that they were the ones who forced the president to finally make some serious cuts in government spending.

This is the next great budget battle brewing in Washington and the political consequences could be enormous.  Republicans believe they are in a strong position to demand budget cuts because they gave in on ending tax cuts for the wealthy at the beginning of the year.  Democrats think the public is with them and will find the across-the-board cuts distasteful if they go into effect.  They are also confident that the Republicans will get most of the blame for any kind of budget roulette.  This is reminiscent of the budget showdown battles of the 1990s between the Clinton administration and the Newt Gingrich-led Republican Congress.  Republicans wound up the political losers back then, but there does some to be some public appetite for cuts now, though perhaps not on the scale most Republicans want.


Rubio in the Spotlight

In addition to Senator Rubio, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, pictured here Jan. 17, 2013, is yet another Republican being mentioned as a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2016. Photo: AP

Republican congressional leaders have chosen Senator Marco Rubio to deliver the Republican Party’s official response to the president’s State of the Union address.   It’s a huge opportunity for Rubio to further enhance his national profile just in case he decides to run for president in 2016.  Rubio will deliver part of his response in Spanish, and his Cuban-American heritage makes him a natural to try and break through to Hispanic voters and immigrants in general.  It’s interesting that the leadership did not invite Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan to give the response even though last year’s Republican vice presidential candidate is also likely thinking about 2016.  Nor did they offer it to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has been all over the national news and late night comedy shows of late talking about everything from the election to Hurricane Sandy to his own weight problems.  While Rubio, Ryan and Christie are looking bound for a showdown in 2016, don’t forget to add one more name to that mix—Kentucky Senator and Tea Party favorite Rand Paul. Like his dad, former Representative Ron Paul of Texas, the son also harbors presidential ambitions.

It may seem strange, but the choice of Rubio to deliver the Republican response is actually the first mini-salvo in the battle for positioning for potential Republican presidential contenders for 2016.  In presidential politics, it’s never too early to start figuring out who’s up and who’s down.


Why is There a State of the Union Address?

What has come to be known as the State of the Union address stems from a rather vague constitutional requirement that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union” and “recommend…such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

Presidents George Washington and John Adams delivered their messages in person before Congress.  But our third president, Thomas Jefferson, thought the whole thing was too much like a king addressing his subjects so he began the tradition of simply sending a written report to Congress.  That was the norm until Woodrow Wilson in 1913, when he revived the idea of giving a speech before a joint session of Congress.

It used to be called the president’s annual message to Congress, but since the 1940’s it has been referred to as the State of the Union.  And ever since, it has become the custom that when the president stands before Congress and the nation to report on the State of the Union, they invariably find it “strong and resilient” no matter what crisis is facing the country at that time.

It wasn’t until President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 that the address was delivered to Congress in the evening.  Ever since, presidents have looked at it as a golden opportunity to address not only lawmakers but the public at large through television and build public support for their agenda before the Congress.

The idea of an opposition party response came into play in the late 1960s, right after the event became a primetime television event (gee, any connection there?).   The modern response is about five to 10 minutes, but back in the early days some of the responses lasted 45 minutes on television and involved numerous comments from a variety of party officials and lawmakers.


State of the Union as Theater


Modern day presidents see the State of the Union as one of the few speaking opportunities that is guaranteed to be carried by the broadcast and cable news television networks.  In addition to laying out a lengthy agenda, the president refers to guests in the visitor’s gallery to help make political points or symbolize causes.  Expect to see some representatives from Newtown, Connecticut this year as well as some successful immigrants who will help make the president’s case for immigration reform.

The State of the Union is stagey, a bit contrived and sometimes awfully long, but it’s one of the few opportunities where Americans can see all three branches of government in one room at the same time, listening to the leader of the country explain where he or she would like to take them in the next few years.  It is more overtly partisan than a presidential inauguration and at times invites some of the crudest demonstrations of raw democracy, like the South Carolina Congressman (Republican Joe Wilson) who screamed “you lie!” at President Obama during his 2009 message to Congress when he spoke about health care reform.

Presidents sometimes make international headlines with their State of the Union speech. President George W. Bush did so in 2002 when he talked about an “Axis of Evil” nations opposing U.S. policies. Photo: AP

Occasionally the State of the Union leads to international headlines.  In 2002, President George W. Bush used the address to call out the so-called “Axis of Evil,” labeling North Korea, Iran and Iraq as significant security threats to the United States.   The following year, Mr. Bush sparked a controversy when he used his address to refer to Iraqi efforts to seek quantities of uranium in Africa as he built a case for eventual military action against Saddam Hussein.

The fact is, though, that Americans generally like to see politicians from the two parties getting along, or at least acting civil toward one another despite the deep political differences in the country. That is where the State of the Union can play at least a symbolic role.  The sight of the president making his way into the House of Representatives chamber mobbed by members from both parties often gives them hope that the country and its elected representatives can, occasionally, find ways to get along in the name of the common good.





Immigration Fast Track

Posted January 30th, 2013 at 9:13 pm (UTC+0)

President Barack Obama proposes sweeping changes in U.S. immigration laws during a speech in Las Vegas, Nevada, January 29, 2013. Photo: AP

Some Republicans Push New Approach

The stars may be aligning for some sort of comprehensive immigration reform this year.  Remember, I said maybe.  The focus is on a plan coming from Senate Democrats and Republicans that would offer a path to citizenship for the 11 million or so illegal immigrants currently in the United States.

President Barack Obama praised the intent of the Senate plan even as he introduced a proposal of his own that would offer illegals a faster track to citizenship.  Both the Obama and Senate plans would include provisions to improve border security and overhaul the immigration system.

The stage is now set for a lengthy debate and battle in both the Senate and House of Representatives.  The bipartisan nature of the Senate plan suggests there may be enough common ground to put together a bill that could win approval, at least in the Senate. The question remains, however, if it could win approval in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where many Tea Party supporting conservatives are still reluctant to support any immigration reform measure that offers anything remotely like an amnesty for those who have been in the country illegally for years.


Elections Have Consequences

Among the four Senate Republicans supporting the bipartisan bill on immigration is John McCain, the party’s 2008 presidential nominee and longtime senator from Arizona.  McCain had a simple explanation as to why some Republicans now seem more open to reform.  “Elections”, he said, adding that Republicans are losing support among Hispanic voters who see immigration reform as a key issue both now and in the future.

President Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote last November and is well aware that Hispanic leaders are expecting action from the White House and congressional Democrats in his second term.  Likewise, Republicans can’t ignore the election results and the fact they are losing ground among not only Hispanics, but Asian-Americans, the fastest growing ethnic group in the U.S.

Republican Senator John McCain, shown here talking with reporters December, 21, 2012, is now joining a group of Democrats to support a compromise law on immigration. Photo: AP

Election defeats have a way of clarifying issues for the losing party and a number of Republicans have quickly figured out that support for some sort of immigration reform will be crucial to their party being competitive with Democrats over the next few election cycles.  But conservative Republicans are already barking about the bipartisan proposal.  Texas Representative Lamar Smith, long a leading Republican voice on immigration issues, told the Washington Post that the Senate proposal effectively would grant amnesty to millions, something he says “compounds the problem by encouraging more illegal immigration.”

In fact, the key to winning passage of any immigration bill down the road may be linking reform to border security efforts and a better system for tracking those already in the United States on visas.  The devil will truly be in the details of whatever immigration plan gets worked out and there are plenty of smaller points out there that could still derail reform in Congress down the line.

The Republican-controlled House will be a particularly tough nut to crack on this and the only conceivable way for passage of a compromise bill is for enough moderate Republicans to join with the Democratic minority in the House to provide the margin of victory.  But we are a long way off from that.


Rubio’s Moment

Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, is one of the gang of eight senators pushing the bipartisan bill on immigration reform.  Unlike last year when Rubio seemed hesitant to push for changes in immigration, this year he seems much more willing to step into the political spotlight.

Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, also supports a compromise bill on immigration. Photo: AP

There is great reward and risk for Rubio in this.  He is already being talked up as a possible Republican presidential contender in 2016 after being considered on last year’s shortlist to be Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate.  Rubio is uniquely positioned to reap benefits, both for himself and for his party as a leader in this effort.  Rubio’s Cuban-American heritage already gives him entre to voters many Republicans have little hope of winning over.  And by pushing the Republican Party to the center on immigration, he could get a lot of credit from activists hoping to make the party more competitive in presidential politics after losing the popular vote in five of the last six elections.

On the other hand, Rubio was elected to the Senate in Florida in 2010 with considerable help from Tea Party activists who might be troubled if he gets too far out in front on the immigration issue.  He also might get heat from some as a “flip-flopper” after speaking out strongly earlier in his career against the notion of granting illegals anything even approaching amnesty.  But I get the sense Rubio realizes the political winds have shifted a bit and that it is imperative the Republican Party find a way to be more competitive with Democrats in luring Hispanic support.  Even if the effort fails in the short term, Rubio could position himself as more of a moderate on the issue, which might help him should he seek the presidency in 2016.


The Party of ‘No’ or ‘Slow’?

Immigration is just one of several issues that pose a test for Republicans this year.  After winning a majority in the House of Representatives in 2010, many Republicans were convinced they were on track to making Barack Obama a one-term president in 2012.  It didn’t happen and many of the Republican wounds were self-inflicted.

The question now is what, if anything, did the party learn from the defeats of 2012 and how can those lessons be applied to the upcoming congressional midterms in 2014, and the next presidential election two years after that. Do they simply try to block attempts at immigration reform and gun control?  Or do they try to slow down momentum in hopes of either watering down the measures or see them stalled in Congress indefinitely?

Many Republicans realize they will be severely handicapped in future elections unless they find a way to appeal to more non-white voters, especially Hispanics and Asian-Americans.  Coming to some sort of a compromise on immigration reform, at least theoretically, is one way of softening their image with those voters.

But other tests await, including gun control, which has taken on new urgency in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut, tragedy in December. Yet another test revolves around the ongoing debates over the size of government and cutting government spending.  One factor to keep in mind is that Republican control of the House gives them real leverage.  While the Senate operates to some extent on the principle of consensus, the rules of the House give most of the power to the party that holds a majority of the 435 seats.

In addition, the latest round of redrawing congressional districts around the country based on the 2010 census has helped to cement Republican control of many of the districts now held by Republican members.  Experts note that 20 years ago, about 160 of the 435 House districts were competitive, meaning that either party generally had a chance in any given election year.  Now the experts say that less than 100 congressional districts are truly competitive, which gives the Republican Party a much more cohesive base of support, especially in the South and in the smaller population states of the West and Plains.  And that means at least the potential of effective veto power in the House over a range of issues as along as Republicans stick together.






Obama: Full Steam Ahead

Posted January 23rd, 2013 at 8:19 pm (UTC+0)
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“One more time…”   Barack Obama turns to look at the crowds gathered on the National Mall as he leaves the podium after being sworn in Jan. 21, 2013, for his second four-year term as president. Photo: Reuters

Big Agenda but Time is Fleeting

If you look at Washington politics as a poker game, President Obama went all in this week.  His second inaugural address caught some by surprise with a more edgy, partisan vibe that runs counter to the tradition that the president’s maiden speech be full of lofty rhetoric and vague generalities.

Four years ago, the newly elected Mr. Obama emphasized common ground and the need to set aside petty recriminations in the era of sharply polarized national politics.   But after four years of stiff Republican opposition to most of what he tried to do, it looks like a different, more combative President Obama has emerged for his second term.

In his inaugural address, Mr. Obama said that on a range of issues, “decisions are now upon us and we cannot afford to delay.”  He added, “We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect.”  Breaking a bit with tradition, the president specifically mentioned several areas of focus, including action on climate change and protecting entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.  Mr. Obama added that “enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”


Less Constrained by Politics

One lasting image of the inauguration was a brief moment after the swearing-in ceremony that was captured on television.  The president was leaving the inaugural platform and headed up a staircase into the Capitol building when he turned around and paused to look back at the huge crowd stretching down the Mall.  “I want to take a look one more time.  I’m not going to see this again.”  This is a man who knows the sands are already slipping out of the hourglass and that there is no time to waste.  Safely re-elected by a comfortable margin and never having to worry about running again, Mr. Obama is giving off the aura of someone willing to push hard for what he wants and less open to compromise than he was during his first term.

Second presidential terms are often unsuccessful. Richard Nixon is shown here Aug. 9, 1974, after he resigned from the presidency because of the Watergate scandal. Photo: AP

Many Republicans were clearly put off by the tone of the president’s inaugural address and dismissed it as a liberal screed.  This may encourage some conservatives to draw their own line in the sand and simply refuse to consider much in the way of compromise as the second term begins to play out.  Besides, many Republicans believe they only have to stall a year or so before the president’s second term momentum will begin to slow.  Second term presidents usually suffer congressional losses in the midterm (2014), and by that time many Republicans will be looking toward the next presidential election in 2016 and will consider Mr. Obama a “lame duck.”

The recent history of second term presidents is not encouraging.  Richard Nixon was forced to resign by the Watergate scandal.  Ronald Reagan’s legacy was tarnished by Iran-Contra.  Bill Clinton nearly got himself thrown out of office by having an extra-marital affair.  George W. Bush got bogged down in Iraq.

After a difficult first term, conventional political wisdom would suggest Mr. Obama seek out compromise and reconciliation with Republicans in order to have any hope of getting things done.  But at least early on, this president seems determined to try to gain as much leverage as he can from his re-election triumph and keep Republicans on the defensive.


Republicans Blink

House Speaker John Boehner and his Republican colleagues decided Jan. 23, not to challenge the president until May over the debt ceiling. Photo: AP

The decision by House Republican leaders to put off a fight over raising the federal government’s debt limit for a few more months suggests they are getting a little smarter about picking their battles.  House Speaker John Boehner wants a clean fight with the president and congressional Democrats over cutting the budget and the size of government.  Boehner realized that getting tangled up in another debate over the debt ceiling could lead to a government default, weaken the economy and put Republicans in a very risky political position.

Instead, Republicans will focus on a fight over budget cuts in March, when the temporary agreement to delay massive domestic and military cuts expires. They believe at that point they will be in a stronger position to pressure the president to accept significant cuts.

But Republicans, especially in the House of Representatives, remain split over budget battle tactics.  Cooler heads in the Republican caucus remain wary of taking on the president directly in the wake of his re-election and public approval rating, which is in the high 50’s.  But conservative firebrands in the House are still itching for a fight over the budget and will push for a confrontation sooner rather than later, citing polling and pressure from within their own congressional districts for a showdown with Mr. Obama.


Rumblings of 2016

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was busy defending her department’s response before Senate and House committees on the Libya attack last September that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.  At times emotional and agitated, Clinton parried criticism from several Republican senators, including Senators John McCain (Arizona), Ron Johnson (Wisconsin) and Rand Paul (Kentucky).  There was also a somewhat milder exchange between the secretary and Republican Marco Rubio, the Florida senator who many see as a possible presidential contender in 2016.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, shown here testifying before Congress Jan. 23, 2013, is being urged by supporters to run for the presidency in 2016. Photo: AP

Speaking of the next presidential election, Clinton’s testimony on the Benghazi attack marks the final chapter in her tenure as secretary of state.  One Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Barbara Boxer of California, expressed the hope that this would not be the end of Clinton’s career in public life, taken by some as a clear encouragement for her to run for president in 2016.   Mrs. Clinton is now 65 and the other leading Democrat for the nomination four years from now is Vice President Joe Biden, who is 70.

A lot can happen in four years and who knows if either Clinton or Biden can maintain enthusiasm levels for their potential candidacies over an extended period.  Besides, there is a whole new generation of Democrats waiting in the wings, trying to figure out if they should make a bid for the White House in 2016 or defer to Clinton and Biden and wait for another time.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick are already getting buzz about considering a run in 2016, though they will clearly wait a bit to get a better idea of the intentions of Clinton and Biden.

It’s already clear that both major parties will be due for some sort of a shake-up in 2016.  Clinton should theoretically be a strong contender, especially among women Democrats who believe it will be their turn after Mr. Obama’s successful quest to become the first African-American president.  But if she declines to run, I don’t think the prospect of a Biden candidacy will scare off too many other Democrats who might decide their time has come to at least make a run at the White House.

The Republican prospects are even more uncertain.  Mitt Romney has already faded from view and 2016 will offer opportunities for a varied field of potential contenders to test the waters.  In addition to the previously mentioned Rubio, don’t forget New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who hit 74 percent approval in the latest Quinnipiac public opinion poll.  Twenty-sixteen might also be a chance for former Florida governor Jeb Bush to insert himself into the mix, hoping voters are a little more open to the idea of another Bush in the White House.

Tea Party favorite Rand Paul is already getting some attention from conservative activists who want a true believer in the race. And don’t forget Romney’s running mate from last year, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan.  Ryan may take the lead in the upcoming budget showdown with the White House, though that would seem to carry with it as much risk as reward if the proposals he puts forward are seen as too draconian.



Inauguration Preview

Posted January 18th, 2013 at 9:31 pm (UTC+0)

Barack Obama rests his hand on President Abraham Lincoln’s Bible, held by his wife Michelle Obama, as he takes the oath of the presidency at his first inaugural January 20, 2009. Photo: AP

Obama’s Second Term Challenge 

It sure does feel different than four years ago.  Remember the crowds, the excitement and the sense that history was being made in 2009 with the inauguration of the country’s first African-American president?  There is definitely a different feel to this second inauguration.  More tempered, I guess.   It seems less about history and celebration and more about figuring out how everybody just gets along in Washington.   The backdrop of the divisive debates over gun control and the budget loom large over this year’s inauguration.

The fact is, last November’s election settled nothing in terms of the great debate of our time on the size of the U.S. federal government and what its role should be the in the everyday lives of Americans.  The president won his second term and Republicans were rebuked, also losing seats in both the Senate and House of Representatives.  But those congressional Republicans returning to Washington don’t feel chastened.  Many are more determined than ever to press their demands for a reduction in the size and role of government and appear willing to use upcoming debates over raising the debt ceiling and funding the government to make their case.


An Apprehensive Public

The latest Wall Street Journal-NBC News public opinion poll found that only 43 percent of those surveyed are optimistic about the next four years.  That’s even worse than the 48 percent who felt that way at the beginning of President George W. Bush’s second term in 2005.  I remember covering one of the inaugural balls that year and many of the Republicans I talked to seemed less excited about the next four years than they were relieved that their guy had bested Democrat John Kerry a few months earlier.

Inauguration day is also the occasion for inaugural balls. President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are shown here dancing at one of the balls after his first inauguration January 20, 2009. Photo: AP

So what does President Obama say and do to get people excited about his second term?  He’ll have an opportunity with his inaugural address, but if history is any guide that will be a long shot.  Can anybody remember a catchy line from his first inaugural address in 2009?  I didn’t think so.  I’m sure there will be more about the need for national unity, the desire to put our differences aside and find common ground for the good of the country.  And all of that is proper and has to be said.  But how do you get people to go along with it?  How do you get them to the point they are willing to set aside some of their differences and come together for the common good.  Decades of political polarization in this country have taken a toll and it’s not likely one speech will do much to bridge that gap.


Inaugural Words for the Ages

It is also the occasion for a parade. Mr. and Mrs. Obama wave to the crowd as they walk in the first inaugural parade in 2009. Photo: AP

Historians say it’s rare that an inaugural address has much of a political impact on the country.  Political analyst and frequent VOA contributor Larry Sabato wrote recently in his Crystal Ball newsletter that there have only been two truly memorable inaugural addresses in U.S. history and I think it’s hard to argue with him.   Sabato cites President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural speech in 1865 and John F. Kennedy’s stirring address in 1961.   Lincoln spoke eloquently about trying to bind up the nation’s wounds as the Civil War drew to a close.  Kennedy delivered what became a clarion call for a new, younger generation of national leadership to take on the Cold War world of the 1960’s and to urge Americans to get re-engaged with their country through public service with his “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” riff that wound up inspiring a generation.

For the most part, though, presidents have to face the reality that much of what they say in inaugural addresses is lost to the ages. Finding a way to break that historical pattern and set a lasting tone for a second term is often elusive at best.  Add to the mix the fact that presidents also start to think of their place in history more in their second terms, mindful that lasting success can be fleeting and that much of their legacy was already built during their first term.  Political reality also dictates that presidents have a small window of time in their second term to actually get things done.  Most experts say the president has about a year and a half to get major pieces of legislation through Congress before the sands in the political hourglass start to run out and people start to focus on the next presidential election, in this case in 2016.


Inauguration Traditions Evolved

It’s amazing to note how little the U.S. Constitution has to say about presidential inaugurations.  It does lay out the oath the new president is to swear to that includes the phrase, “and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  The only other reference is contained in the 20th Amendment that set the date for the inauguration as January 20th, much earlier than the traditional date of March 4th . Franklin
Roosevelt was the first president to be inaugurated on January 20th, with his second inauguration in 1937. Since January 20th falls on a Sunday this year, Mr. Obama will keep with tradition by being publicly sworn in on January 21st.

The modern inauguration has evolved into a multi-day extravaganza.  What began as the simple installation of a chief executive with an oath to defend the Constitution has morphed into a Hollywood-type made for TV event complete with music, poetry and (hopefully) stirring oratory in the form of the inaugural address.

It is an old tradition that the outgoing president appears at the inauguration of the incoming chief executive. Here, outgoing President George H.W. Bush is shown greeting incoming President Bill Clinton at the swearing-in in 2001. Photo: AP

There is no constitutional requirement for the inaugural address but it was a tradition that goes back to our first president, George Washington.  Washington also added the words, “so help me God” at the end of the oath, something all of his successors have repeated.  Thomas Jefferson was the first president to ask the Chief Justice of the United States (Supreme Court) to administer the oath, which has now become a staple of the ceremony.  The roots of the inaugural parade, which can now last hours, can be traced back to the time of Washington when Revolutionary War veterans accompanied the first president from his home in Virginia to his swearing-in in New York City in 1789.   In 1809, newly-inaugurated President James Madison became the first president to host an inaugural ball.

Beyond the ritual of the inauguration, though, is a very powerful symbol of American democracy.  In a way, the inauguration is the perfect counterpart to a partisan political campaign during an election year.  The campaigns are democracy in its rawest form, full of bombastic rhetoric and political accusations flying back and forth between the candidates and political parties.  But once the election is over and the people have spoken, the inauguration serves as an enduring ritual of national acceptance and healing in the wake of an election.

This is especially true in years when control of the White House passes from one party to another.  The first time it happened back in 1801, outgoing President John Adams left Washington shortly before his successor, Thomas Jefferson, was sworn in.  But that was the exception.  Defeated presidents may not like it, but it has become tradition that the outgoing chief executive joins the incoming president on the inaugural platform in a show of national unity and political healing.  Among the more memorable scenes were outgoing Vice President Richard Nixon watching President John Kennedy give his inaugural address in 1961 after narrowly losing the White House to Kennedy just a few months before.  Or how about Vice President Al Gore witnessing President George W. Bush take the oath in 2001, just weeks after the disputed election was settled in Mr. Bush’s favor by the Supreme Court.






Confirmation Battles to Come

Posted January 9th, 2013 at 8:18 pm (UTC+0)
1 comment

President Barack Obama introduces part of his new national security team Jan. 7, at the White House. At right is the nominee for CIA director, John Brennan, and at left, the nominee for secretary of defense, former Sen. Chuck Hagel. Photo: AP

Hagel in the Crosshairs

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that while there will be a fight in the Senate, Chuck Hagel will win Senate confirmation as President Obama’s new Secretary of Defense.  But the battle is shaping up as a contentious one right from the start.   Some Republicans began squawking even before the Hagel pick was made official, upset with some previous comments he made about relations with Israel and his opposition to the troop surge in Iraq.

Former senator Chuck Hagel is likely to have a rough confirmation process in the Senate, where many of his old Republican Party colleagues oppose his nomination as President Obama’s secretary of defense. Photo: AP

Of course, some Republicans will oppose Hagel because they never felt he really was one of them – even when was the Republican senator from Nebraska.  Hagel made a career as a party-bucking maverick in his two terms in the Senate and caused Republicans heartburn with his views on Iraq and how to rein in Iran’s nuclear development program.  But Hagel’s combat experience in Vietnam, which resulted in both wounds and medals, left him uniquely positioned to be at times both a defense hawk (he supported the Iraq invasion early on) and a respected critic (he opposed the troop surge and was a thorn in the side of the so-called neo-conservatives in the Bush administration) later on.

Historically, presidents generally get their cabinet picks approved by the Senate and actual rejection of nominees has occurred only a handful of times in U.S. history.  This is particularly true for current or former senators nominated to cabinet posts.  Former Texas Senator John Tower was the only senator rejected by a Senate vote when he was nominated to be secretary of defense by then President George H.W. Bush in 1989.


Bond with Obama

While a senator, Hagel did some travelling with then Senator Barack Obama to the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it seems the two clicked on their worldviews of how and when to deploy

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry seems likely to have an easier time getting confirmed in the Senate as the new secretary of state. Photo: AP

U.S. military force around the world.  If confirmed, Hagel will join a new foreign policy/national security team that will also presumably include Senator John Kerry as secretary of state.  Kerry’s confirmation is expected to be easier than Hagel’s and both men will bring the unique perspectives of Vietnam veterans to their new jobs, a polar swing away from the kind of neo-conservative activist military policy we saw during the George W. Bush administration.

Vietnam was an unpopular war, with an undefined ending. Many of those who fought in it, like former Secretary of State Colin Powell, came away with a visceral distaste for committing U.S. forces unless there was a compelling reason that had the backing of the public and a clear path to victory.

The Washington Times newspaper reports that veterans of the “Swift boat Veterans for Truth” group that went after Kerry during his 2004 presidential bid will not make an effort to stop his confirmation as secretary of state, making Hagel the focal point of Republican opposition at the moment.


Fight over Brennan Also Possible

There are also some stirrings that Republicans may try and make it tough for John Brennan to win confirmation as the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency.  South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham says Brennan shouldn’t be confirmed until the Obama administration provides more information about the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans including Ambassador Chris Stevens last September.  Brennan could also get some heat from liberal and anti-war groups upset with the administration’s expansion of the predator drone program to target suspected terrorists around the world.

Of course, Republicans may need to be careful not to be seen to opposing everyone the administration puts forward.  There was a time in Washington when the president was given a lot of leeway in making cabinet appointments, especially in the wake of a re-election victory.  But like everything else in these polarized political times, deference to the president seems like a custom that has faded quicker than an old photograph.


Republican’s Future

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, shown here Jan. 4, 2013, remains a rising star in the Republican Party and many are mentioning him as a possible presidential candidate in 2016.

Rising star of the week award seems headed for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.  His public approval ratings in New Jersey have shot up to above 70 percent in the wake of his handling of the aftermath of super storm Sandy and the devastation it wrought.  Christie is getting a lot of talk-up now as the possible future of the party and a potentially strong presidential contender in 2016 should he decide to run.  But some Republicans will not be quick to forgive Christie for his “beach-bonding” with President Obama along the Jersey Shore in the wake of Sandy, images that seemed to help the president in the waning days of his re-election campaign and to freeze any momentum for Republican candidate Mitt Romney.  But it would seem that if Republicans want to broaden their appeal in 2016 and go beyond their roots in the South and West, Christie could offer the party a straight-talking, populist-sounding regular guy who prides himself on getting things done.


Nixon at 100

Wednesday would have been the 100th birthday of the late President Richard Nixon, shown here in a 1973 file picture. Photo: AP

Wednesday marked the 100th anniversary of former President Richard Nixon’s birth in California.  Mr. Nixon was easily one of the most divisive (and in some cases despised) U.S. political figures of the 20th Century.  He was a dominant force in our politics from the late 1940’s right into the mid-1970s.  It’s astounding to think that Richard Nixon was part of five national presidential tickets, three as the presidential nominee.  He ran and won twice as vice president with President Dwight Eisenhower, lost the White House is a famously close election in 1960 to John Kennedy and came back to win the party nomination and the presidency in 1968, followed by re-election in 1972.  Mr. Nixon was a winner four out of five attempts at national office.

Of course, there is the other side of the coin known as Watergate, the scandal that forced his resignation in 1974, the only U.S. chief executive ever to step down from the presidency.  Nixon remains a mystery to scholars and even some supporters to this day, a brilliant man with an expansive grasp of foreign policy who nevertheless eventually fell victim to his own personal demons, petty political grudges and insecurities.








Cliff Averted but Quicksand Ahead

Posted January 3rd, 2013 at 9:46 pm (UTC+0)

Spending Clash Coming

In the end, the best Congress could do was a narrow compromise to avoid everybody’s taxes from going up.  In the modern polarized political age, I guess that constitutes some sort of victory.  But any true deficit reduction — and remember this is supposed to be about cutting the deficit — will only come through some combination of more revenue and less government spending.  And this deal to avoid America’s so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ merely kicked the spending can down the road for two more months.


Republicans Give on Taxes

The tax issue is largely settled, at least for the moment.  This is thanks in large part to the fact that Republicans, the party known for decades for its desire to cut taxes, were put in an impossible situation by President Obama and the Democrats.   House Republicans failed to come up with an alternative to the Obama tax cut plan and that meant action shifted to the Senate where pretty much nothing gets done anymore unless there is some level of bipartisan support.

Once the Senate approved the compromise measure by an overwhelming 89-8 margin, it put House Republicans in the difficult position of either going along to prevent a tax hike for everyone or standing alone on principle, killing the deal and suffering the political consequences from millions of angry voters looking for somebody to blame.

House Speaker John Boehner survives the storm and is re-elected to his job Jan. 3, 2013. Photo: AP

House Democrats supported the compromise joined by 85 House Republicans to ensure passage.  One-hundred-fifty-one House Republicans voted against it, showing a clear split within the House Republican caucus as to what political factors they felt were most important.   Those Republicans who supported the compromise were afraid they would be blamed for plunging the country over the fiscal cliff if the deal was killed.  But the other 151 Republicans who opposed it were upset at the lack of spending cuts and are more fearful of conservative challenges in Republican primaries where any votes in support of tax increases of any kind could be seen as heresy.

Congressman Spencer Bachus of Alabama spoke for many of his House Republican colleagues when he told the Washington Times, “I know the president won his election, but I also won my election.”

To open the new Congress, House Speaker John Boehner narrowly won re-election after several Republicans defected and voted for more conservative choices. House Republicans are divided, but conservatives  and Tea Party supporters are already signaling to Boehner that there will be trouble ahead if he tries to ignore their wishes in the battles to come.

Old School Politics

Numerous press accounts of the behind the scenes maneuvering gave credit to two old Senate hands for coming up with a compromise and preventing a dive off the fiscal cliff.  Senate

Senate Democratic Party leader Harry Reid, pictured here Dec. 11, 2013, gets a rude suggestion from a Republican congressional colleague. Photo: AP

Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who is no slouch in the partisan gamesmanship department, wasn’t getting anywhere with either Senate Majority leader Harry Reid or the Obama White House.  So he put in a call to his old Senate colleague, Vice President Joe Biden, and the two men were able to work out a deal that kept taxes lower for individuals making less than $400,000 and couples making less than $450,000.

McConnell was forced to reach out to the vice president because the relationship between Speaker Boehner and the White House was bad, and the one between Boehner and Harry Reid was even worse.  At one point a few days before the January 1st deadline Reid took to the Senate floor and accused Boehner of acting like a “dictator” in the House.   When the two men later went to the White House for talks as part of a larger group, Boehner went up to Reid and told him, “Go f— yourself,” according to the Washington Post.

Whoa, fellas, take it easy.  Can’t we all get along?


Spending Battles Ahead

For those who thought the fiscal cliff battle might solve the differences between the two parties once and for all, forget it.  It turns out it was merely the latest skirmish.  Remember, the Tea Party-backed Republicans who came to town in 2010 felt it their mission not only to cut spending and permanently reduce the size of government, but to no longer engage in Washington compromise either.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, shown here Dec. 18, 2013, helps broker a fiscal deal this time, but more battles ahead. Photo: AP

So we can look forward to another battle over spending as early as next month when Congress will need to raise the debt limit so the government can borrow more money to pay its bills.  A similar showdown in 2011 resulted in Standard & Poor’s downgrading the U.S. government’s bond rating.

And just beyond the debt ceiling fight, we can expect more battles over spending when Congress will have to grapple with mandatory cuts to defense and domestic spending that were delayed for two months as part of the fiscal cliff compromise.   And just in case we make it through those two challenges, the funding measure that temporarily is funding the U.S. government since last year expires on March 27th, forcing Congress to come to an agreement or risk the possibility of a government shutdown.


Clash of Worldviews

President Obama won a second presidential term and hoped it would give him political leverage in his future dealings with Republicans.  The jury is still out on that.  The president and his Democratic allies were in a very favorable position on the tax hike issue.  No politician wants the risk of being blamed for raising somebody’s taxes.  But the coming battles will focus on spending and that is an area where Republicans are likely to be much more united.  The president will likely not have the same kind of leverage in these upcoming spending debates, even though he has already laid out a marker that he will not negotiate with Republicans over the debt ceiling limit.

Despite all the talk from Republicans, however, they still offer little in the way of specific spending cuts they would like to consider.  That’s because specifics in this debate will spark an outcry from any number of special interest groups that would suffer from the proposed cuts.

Democrats have played their tax card and will be pressured now to get serious about finding common ground on cuts.  But it’s likely the Democratic strategy will be to force Republicans to get specific on cuts first, putting them on the defensive and letting them take the heat.   I’d say, “Let the games begin,” but the fact is the game has been on for a while and will continue through much of this year.

Political Battle Lines for 2013

Posted December 31st, 2012 at 6:59 pm (UTC+0)

President Obama faces a host of vexing issues in his second term in the White House. Photo: AP

Spending Issues Will Be Key

As we head into 2013 it, already seems apparent that presidential elections don’t mean as much as they used.  President Barack Obama won a second term in November and Democrats gained seats in both the Senate and House of Representatives.  In the old days, say 30 or 40 years ago, that might have meant the losing party would stand down to an extent and let the winners set the political agenda, biding its time until the next election.  But in our current political climate, the campaigns never end and an election becomes merely the latest skirmish in a never-ending battle for political supremacy in which neither side can ever fully claim an all-out victory.

House Speaker John Boehner and his fellow Republicans in the House of Representatives appear ready to challenge the president on most issues in the coming year. Photo: AP

No matter the outcome on the so-called fiscal cliff debate, government spending will remain a key point of contention in 2013.  Republicans, especially those elected with Tea Party help, believe their main mission in coming to Washington is to reduce the size of government and the election result in November isn’t going to change that.  House Republicans, in particular, feel much more threatened by the prospect of a conservative challenger in a Republican primary election back home than they are by some faceless national constituency demanding that both sides work together.   So the conservative faction that is heart and soul of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives will do what it has to do to make sure that conservative constituents back home are happy.


Obama’s Challenge

Yes, President Obama won a second term, thanks in large part to a skilled re-election campaign and some major mistakes on the part of his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney.  But you won’t hear even Democrats crowing about some imagined mandate from the results. And for most Americans, 2012 turned out to be a choice election where staying with the status quo seemed less risky than going with the flawed Republican nominee, Romney.

So Mr. Obama was always going to have a challenge getting the country excited about a second term, especially when a little less than half of the voters supported the other guy.  That challenge is enormously more complicated now in the wake of the mass killings at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and the ongoing battle over taxes and spending that apparently will remain the key political struggle much as it was in 2012.


The Coming Gun Debate

A Connecticut State Police woman leads students from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown after a mass shooting there Dec. 14, killed 26 students and staff. Photo: AP/Newtown Bee

The Newtown tragedy has energized gun control activists to mobilize and demand action early in Mr. Obama’s second term, a prospect that brings with it high political risk.  Since the early 1990s, the gun lobby led by the National Rifle Association has held the upper hand politically, culminating in 2004 when Congress made a feeble attempt to renew the expiring assault weapons ban put into place in 1994.  As the NRA and other pro-gun groups have indicated lately, they’re ready for another battle over any new initiatives on gun control.  That would include any attempt to re-impose the assault weapons ban, firm up background checks on gun sales or any effort aimed at keeping guns away from the mentally disturbed.

But the longer the debate drags on and the further away we get from the Newtown tragedy, the more likely it is that the advantage will drift back toward the pro-gun forces whenever Congress decides to take up the issue.  The gun lobby is especially confident they can defeat new gun control efforts in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where many members from pro-gun districts in the South, Midwest and Mountain West will never give much in the way of compromise on the gun debate.


Prospects for Immigration Reform

This is an area that holds perhaps the greatest promise of cooperation between the two parties in the year ahead.  Democrats will make a bigger push for comprehensive immigration reform in 2013 because they benefited so much from Hispanic support in the November election.  At the same time a number of Republicans will be clamoring for a different approach on immigration given how poorly they did with Hispanic voters in 2012 and the prospects for even more defeats in the years to come without trimming the Democrat’s huge advantage with minority voters.

The two sides diverge somewhat on whether the path to legalization should result in citizenship, as many Hispanic activists would like, or simply legalization of their status inside the U.S., a path many Republicans prefer.  Either way, the Republicans are much more likely to engage in a debate about immigration reform in the wake of the election.  One of the things that hurt Mitt Romney badly last year was the tone of the Republican primary debates on immigration that made several of the Republican presidential contenders sound extreme on immigration, something voters remembered when it came time to cast their ballots in November.  In fact, of all the issues that will come up this year this one might have the best chance of actually bringing the two parties together.


Jockeying for 2016

Republicans seem headed for a period of soul-searching and reflection in the New Year following their election defeats in November. Inevitably, that leads to speculation about who might be interested in running for president four years from now.  I think the early discussion will focus on three people—New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and former Florida governor Jeb Bush.

Christie burnished his image with moderates and maybe even a few Democrats when he toured storm-devastated areas along the New Jersey coast with President Obama and praised his role in the recovery.  Of course, those same actions upset conservatives who felt Christie’s praise and willingness to be seen with the president helped Mr. Obama in the final days of the election campaign when Mitt Romney was struggling to break through.  So Christie may have some fence-mending to do with fellow Republicans, but right now I can’t think of too many possible Republican White House contenders who would potentially have the kind of appeal to moderate swing voters that Christie would.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Could his last name hurt his chances for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016? Photo: AP

Marco Rubio has roots in the Tea Party movement and could generate support from Hispanic voters should he decide to run in 2016.  But Rubio also comes across as a fairly cautious politician and some Republicans might see him as better suited as someone’s vice presidential running mate in four years’ time.

Jeb Bush is heading for almost elder statesman status within the Republican Party. Even so, he probably would generate some excitement among the party establishment and big money donors if he gets interested in running in the next election.  But to me there’s always been a question whether he really wants to be president or would he be running to fulfill some sort of family destiny.  Some hardcore conservatives might resist him, fearing another Mitt Romney who pays lip service to the right then abandons them later on.

But Jeb Bush’s biggest obstacle, if he runs, still might be the last name he shares with his brother, former president George W. Bush.  It still amazes me that as recently as the November election, many voters were still blaming the former president for the country’s economic woes even though he’d been out of office for four years.  Still Jeb Bush might be one of the few Republicans who could unite the party establishment, economic conservatives and social conservatives, and still offer at the least the potential of drawing some Hispanic support as he did when he was governor of Florida.




Jim Malone

Jim Malone

After a stint in the Peace Corps in Swaziland, Jim joined VOA in 1983 as a reporter and anchor on English broadcasts to Africa.  He served as East Africa correspondent, then covered Congress in the early 1990’s.   Since 1995, Jim has served as VOA national correspondent responsible for coverage of U.S. politics, elections, the Supreme Court and Justice Department.  Jim has been involved in VOA’s election coverage since the 1984 presidential campaign and has co-anchored live VOA broadcasts of numerous national political conventions, candidate debates and election night coverage.


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