Don’t Expect a Honeymoon – Jan 4, 2011

This is the season when many make predictions for the year to come, and I’ve got one really easy one: the bipartisan comity that we experienced in the late days of the 111th Congress will quickly dissipate in the early days of the 112th.

OK, I’ll admit, that’s not much of a stretch.  But beneath that somewhat flippant prediction, there is a more interesting dynamic – which way will President Obama lean?  Will he work with the Republicans in the House and execute his own version of Clinton-style triangulation, or will he stake out his turf on the left and try to cast the GOP as more interested in scoring political points than governing?

There have been some interesting hints, but so far nothing that is convincing.  One of the front runners for replacing Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff is William Daley, the mayor’s brother, and, for someone steeped in Chicago politics, he has a healthy streak of private enterprise in his history.  He was Clinton’s Secretary of Commerce and recently has been a honcho with JP Morgan.  This is a good sign.  On the other hand, we’ve already heard Obama rehearse the message: he said on his return from Hawaii that he hopes Republicans will realize the American people want them to govern, not retreat into petty politics.

Of course, the problem is, one man’s petty politics is another’s principled opposition.  The Republicans have already made their agenda clear: they are going to target spending, they are going to attack Obamacare, and they are going to hold hearings – lots of hearings – to shed a little light on the behind-the-curtain machinations of what was supposed to be the most transparent administration in history.

Even before they are sworn in, they are making good on their promises to the Tea Party and the rest of the fiscally riled.  They have pledged to symbolically cut Congressional staff budgets by 5% – not much, perhaps, in the scheme of things, but in some ways, that’s the point.  How hard can it be to cut budgets 5%?  Families, companies, churches and school districts have done the same or more.  And if the Federal government cut their expenses 5% across the board, that would be an easy $70 billion in savings.

The 112th House will also pass a number of rules to underscore how serious they are about constraining spending, including changing “pay-as-you-go” to “cut-as-you-go” to place the emphasis on spending cuts rather than tax increases.

But the rubber will meet the road in two months’ time, when the GOP House will have to deal with the still-unfinished business of the Fiscal 2011 Budget.  Government funding, you will recall, was kept alive by a continuing resolution in one of the early successes of the lame duck session.  This only provides arterial juice until March, and so a battle royal will be joined in the weeks before that to determine just how much spending is going to be cut.

Expect Obama to be moderately cooperative on this.  He knows – or at least he should know – that he lost the Great Middle of this country in 2010 because of spending and deficits.  Can he put his redistributionist impulses behind him long enough to countenance genuine spending restraint?  Can he swallow his bile and leave the Bush tax rates where they are?  This will matter a lot to Obama’s chances in 2012.

Another target for the GOP right out of the blocks is Obamacare.  Here they have the wind at their backs: most recent polls show the public even more opposed to it than ever, with 60% in favor of repeal.  Of course, with a Democratic Senate and Obama holding the veto pen, they can’t actually repeal it in this Congress.  But the vote to repeal will set down a marker that will shape the debate through the next two years.  Obama is right to try to divert the effort – he has said more than once he thinks the American people do not want them to “re-litigate” the arguments of the last two years.  Unfortunately, when it comes to health care legislation, that’s exactly what they do want.

Obamacare will be under attack from several directions in 2011, including Congressional efforts to deny funding, and, probably more important, Constitutional challenges raised on several fundamental grounds at the state level.  This one will be hard for Obama to triangulate away from.  It is his signature legislation from the first two years, and it is an achievement that liberals have been pursuing for fifty years or more.  He is going to defend this on every front, and in doing so is likely to look a bit like General Custer at Little Big Horn.

Finally, an administration effort to pursue the Obama agenda away from the glare of Congress’ klieg lights is likely to be dragged right in front of said illumination.  I am referring to the rules being proposed by various bureaucracies to press forward on aspects of Obama’s plans for America that were not approved by Congress.  To whit, the EPA’s promulgation of carbon regulations, the FCC’s usurping power to rule on “net neutrality”, and HHS’ issuing of rules recommending – and paying for – annual “end of life” discussions with elderly patients.  And that’s only a start.

All of these efforts to end-run Congress on major issues will come before the investigative panels of the Republican House.  Legally, they may not be able to do much to stop them, but by publicizing these efforts they will set the background for the major debates of the next couple of years.  After all,  these administrative actions represent policy objectives that the administration was unable to pass into law even with the colossal majorities it had in the 111th Congress.  The American people might be interested to know that those things are being put into place anyway.

Here, too, it is hard to see Obama getting terribly cooperative.  This is his giveback to the leftish troops that put him in office, and he needs to keep them mollified.  Since he can’t do it with legislation any more, this is his outreach.  Watch this to be another snarling catfight.

So in the main, I think the president will stand opposed to the GOP House more than he will work with them.  My gut tells me he will find himself painted into a corner on several issues, defending liberal positions that the rest of the country doesn’t share.  I could be wrong, though: politicians have a powerful interest in getting re-elected.  Perhaps he can morph.

One other prediction: Sarah Palin will not run for President.  I think she is having more fun and, frankly, having more influence doing what she is doing now.  Plus, she’s making a ton of dough.  Who needs another bout with the media buzzsaw as a candidate?

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