If House leaders corral a hefty bipartisan majority to pass the fiscal 2013 funding resolution and keep the government running for the next six months, it may look like an election-eve exception to the prevailing narrative about dysfunction, polarity, and obstruction on Capitol Hill.
“We fiddle. We fiddle while the fiscal fires burn,” said Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., sticking to the script on Wednesday.
“I’m not confident at all,” Speaker John Boehner said on Tuesday, when asked if Congress can get its act together and avoid the upcoming fiscal cliff.
But here is a largely unspoken truth about the House as the 112th Congress nears its end: Almost everything important that it has accomplished has been the product, in the end, of bipartisan majorities. When absolutely forced to, Democrats and Republicans have cut deals that centrists on both sides could live with. And in that there is a message of hope as the country approaches the year-end threat of spending cuts and tax hikes.
Don’t expect much to occur before Election Day, and bet that any solution to the nation’s fiscal problems will be accompanied by a savage partisan struggle and agonizing delay before a final bargain is struck. But you can look it up: When crunch time arrives, Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Hoyer have been Boehner’s go-to whips.
The Republican caucus is divided, with a sizable conservative faction that views the federal debt as the direst threat to the nation, and the prospect of tax hikes a close runner-up. To pass the big fiscal measures—such as those that the House will face in the next six months—the speaker has relied on Democrats.
It is one of Washington’s not-so-little secrets. Boehner doesn’t like recognizing his dependence on Pelosi’s troops, and he prefers to negotiate with the White House. House Democrats seethe about the end-around and grumble that they don’t get credit for bailing the speaker out.
But the 2011 Budget Control Act? Boehner could not have passed it without 95 Democratic votes. The fiscal 2011 omnibus? Passed because 81 Democrats voted for it. Last December’s fiscal 2012 omnibus package? The Democrats saved the speaker with 149 votes. November’s “minibus” appropriations bill? The Democrats gave Boehner 165 votes—his Republicans only 133.
Passage of the payroll-tax deal in February? Pelosi got Boehner the votes of 147 Democrats. The reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank? It won 183 Democratic votes, and just 147 Republican. And this summer’s big compromise on transportation funding and student loans? Boehner and Pelosi passed it with 187 Democratic and 186 Republican ayes.
The fiscal 2013 continuing resolution may be another example. Tea party groups and conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation bristle at the notion that Republicans will join Democrats in approving, as Heritage analyst Patrick Knudsen put it, “just another omnibus, spend-as-you-go measure that extends the federal government’s fiscal policy.”
“The CR increases spending by $8 billion, including a 0.6 percent across-the-board boost,” writes Knudsen. “That is $19 billion above the House budget resolution.”
Boehner may lose some tea party conservatives, and Republican leaders may give a pass to GOP members who need to go home and campaign as budget warriors. But the speaker won’t worry—not with Pelosi’s Democrats there to provide a comfortable margin.
Approving more spending is easy, of course. Cutting spending and raising taxes are tougher chores.
If Mitt Romney wins the White House, and Republicans retain control of the House, conservatives will be under acute pressure to support the new president’s agenda. Then Boehner will rely, no doubt, on appeals for Republican solidarity.
But if President Obama wins, and the Republicans retain control of the House, it’s not likely that the chamber’s hardiest conservatives will abandon their opposition to Democratic health care, spending, and tax policies.
In the end, to get any kind of tax and budget deal passed, the speaker and the White House and House Democratic leaders will probably repeat the ugly, confrontational process that nevertheless ended, time and again in the 112th Congress, in begrudging bipartisan agreements.
This article appears in the Sep. 13, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.