Now that the pre-fight pugilism of 2016 has begun (Hillary versus Rove—talk about heavy-armed brawlers), let’s consider what President Obama and Congress may produce in 2014 and 2015.
The short answer is: not much, and perhaps quite a lot.
The underlying politics in both years is generally straightforward, but it will be a richer, spicier stew in early 2015 if Republicans win back control of the Senate. More on that in a moment.
For the remainder of this year, Obama’s “Year of Action” will yield precisely what it has already—incremental policy changes torturously wrapped in ever-more-garish spin garb. The act will wear thin; Obama’s narrative, such as it is, will flatten; and Republican anticipation for midterm gains—already running ahead of the polls—will conspire against any high-profile (therefore risky) compromise with the White House. That means the following for this year:
No comprehensive immigration reform. There is no impetus among rank-and-file House members to put together the component parts of a big bill. The summer may see small-bore measures on border enforcement. There could also be a move to encourage military service for illegal immigrants. But even the so-called Enlist Act creates political headaches for the GOP. Obama will continue to push immigration, and House GOP leaders will delay the eulogy as long as possible, but the issue doesn’t just look dead for the year. It is dead.
No minimum-wage increase or temporary extension of emergency-unemployment benefits. Neither issue moves the polling needle in House GOP districts—not even in swing districts. The price of extended jobless benefits is approving the Keystone XL pipeline, a deal Obama won’t touch. And there’s no dollar amount House GOP leaders will embrace for a higher minimum wage.
The FISA bill has a chance in the House. Floor action is expected soon, and with bipartisan support in the Judiciary and Intelligence committees, the bill will likely reach the Senate with rare momentum. Also, the White House has worked steadily and cooperatively with House GOP leaders on the bill. Increasingly, Obama’s new head of legislative affairs, Katie Beirne Fallon, is seen by top House and Senate GOP leaders as the go-to person on legislative compromise. Fallon is accessible, open to input, and viewed as a fair referee of policy debates. Fallon and top GOP aides collaborated on some fine-tuning of the FISA reform bill as it moved through the Judiciary Committee before recess.
Fallon's also made headway on the water resources reform bill that House and Senate leaders expect to pass this year. She's also making some progress on issues like increasing highway and mass-transit funding (which will take longer to resolve). On infrastructure funding, Republicans may eventually push for higher gasoline taxes (though not this year) and point to higher user fees for TSA airport security in the two-year budget deal negotiated by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., as precedent.
As should be clear, big issues won’t be resolved—let alone tackled—this year. Smaller issues will be, and Obama’s penchant for hitting singles and doubles in foreign policy will find its mirror image in Congress.
Now, a word about GOP political expectations. House GOP leaders expect to gain 10 to 15 seats. In the Senate, the map clearly favors the GOP. So does the overall political climate. Analysts now reasonably ask only the size of the coming GOP wave, not if one will manifest.
Two notes of caution. Voter intensity is running behind 2010 figures. The GOP intensity gap is still sizable, and Obama fatigue among Democrats may be worse than it was before his midterm “shellacking” of 2010. But intensity within the GOP is not what it was at this time in 2010. This is one statistic to monitor. Also, a quick check of 15 polls measuring generic ballot preference in May of 2010 revealed a better GOP climate than the 15 most recent generic-preference polls this year. The GOP led the generic ballot in nine of the 15 polls in May of 2010. It leads five of the 15 this year. The aggregate GOP advantage in polls that the party led in May of 2010 was 5.2 percent compared with 2.2 percent this year. The GOP advantage in all 15 polls in May 2010 was 2.5 percent (adding in the polls that Democrats led or that were tied). This year, the GOP advantage across all of the 15 most recent polls was 0.73 percent.
I’m not arguing that Republicans will fail to win the Senate, or disputing the presence of a rising GOP wave. I’m merely pointing out that voter intensity and generic ballot preference are running behind where they were in 2010. Those factors must be taken into account as the GOP imagines an ever-expanding horizon of potential Senate victories.
But let’s assume the GOP does take back the Senate. What does that mean for 2015?
It means Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will be fuming. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi will be looking for a graceful way to exit and to prepare her caucus for a newer generation of leaders (sorry, Steny).
But first, there will be early and fascinating fisticuffs elsewhere. And I’m not talking about leadership elections. Those will be a crushing bore, as will committee-chairmanship ascensions. And the lame-duck session won’t touch big-ticket items. Forget Trade Promotion Authority or immigration. There will be a continuing resolution or possibly a short-term omnibus bill to fund the government.
What will be interesting is how Republicans—should they be victorious—deal with immigration. You can imagine the quick formation of a House-Senate GOP task force on immigration reform (the internal politics of who lands on this would make Game of Thrones writers shiver). Whither the immigration politics of Sen. Marco Rubio?
Then comes the budget. The next Congress will have to take the next step after the Murray-Ryan deal. And that means Republicans will have to write and pass budget resolutions with an eye toward reconciliation—giving the long-dormant issue of tax reform at least a theoretical life-line (expect new Ways and Means Chairman Ryan to seize it).
But the need for the new Congress to deal with the budget and the lame-duck continuing resolution or omnibus means three very likely GOP presidential contenders—Sens. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Rubio—will have their first policy primary just as they are preparing finance committees and grassroots outreach in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and elsewhere. Watching Republicans write a budget that unites Cruz—as it very well might—with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, will be worth the price of admission.
By spring 2015, Washington will know a great deal about the presidential prospects of the GOP’s Beltway-bound (as in attached-to) senators and where Obama wants to fall on the legacy index (he can go bipartisan-big on immigration, taxes, and highways or stay small with his 2009-2011 all-Democratic harvest) and how Republicans run Congress while also trying to win a presidential election for the first time since 2004.
Either way, you won’t need a DVR this year. But you’ll want one early next year.
The author is National Journal correspondent-at-large and chief White House correspondent for CBS News. He is also a distinguished fellow at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.
The Koch Brothers Versus the Columbus Zoo
This article appears in the May 14, 2014 edition of NJ Daily as Torpor Before Temper.