But then there are the K Street lobbyists, good-government media, Wall Street financiers, party elders, business interests, and epic chunks of the electorate who want senators to work together, address the nation’s problems, and get things done. And never more so than now, with the fiscal cliff threatening to squelch the economic recovery.
The path to a deal is there in Tuesday’s exit polling, in which narrow majorities concurred with the Republicans that government is too large but agreed with the Democrats that higher taxes (albeit on the wealthy) may be needed to put the country on a sound fiscal footing. House Speaker John Boehner traversed the currents with no small skill on Wednesday, making no commitment to higher tax rates but promising to put higher tax revenues, acquired through tax reform, on the table. With members of his caucus scattered, disconsolate, or piqued, McConnell refrained from immediate comment.
Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada showed a bit more ankle. “I’m going to do everything in my power to be as conciliatory as possible. We want to work together,” he said. But after reclaiming the White House and picking up seats in the Senate and the House, Democrats won’t be “pushed around,” Reid warned.
The key, Reid and others suggested, is Boehner’s rambunctious caucus. Indeed, it may take the assembled political genius and the combined clout of the nation’s governing and business classes to help the speaker wrap a deal in a tasty enough tortilla of tax reform and then sell it to a majority of his majority.
In the Senate, the process will test the prowess of such skilled dealmakers as McConnell and Reid, congressional veterans said. Even the bravest Republican senators, after seeing independent-minded GOP candidates taken down in primaries by grassroots tea party types and economic interest groups such as FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth (costing the party at least five Senate seats in the past three years, many reckon), will pause before choosing that difficult path.
Democrats may quake as well. The party faces another tough year in 2014, defending 20 seats, many in red and purple states, while the GOP has but 13 incumbents to protect and only one of them, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, marching out there in enemy territory.
“It is all pain. It’s toxic,” said former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, describing what’s ahead for Congress. Politically, “there is nothing good in this. This is all bad.”
He said, “They are going to have to cut spending, cut entitlements. and raise taxes. You are going to have to get members, in some cases, to give up their political career to vote for this thing.” It may well take a financial crisis—such as a 1,000-point drop on Wall Street—to compel Congress to act, Gephardt predicted.
FEAR AND LOATHING
The coming lame-duck session will give us a dose of the dregs, the Patton Boggs law firm warned its clients. “Based on past experience, we expect to hear sleigh bells before the 112th Congress leaves town,” the firm said. “To date, Congress has been unable and unwilling to agree to do anything.”
Yuck. The Democrats, at least, could bask in victory for a few days and plan how to reward their key constituencies with the prospect of Supreme Court appointees and legislative plums. Front and center is immigration reform. Promised to Latinos in Obama’s first term, it is now an imperative after they displayed patience, political maturity, and huge numbers at the polls, giving Democrats more than 70 percent of their votes on Tuesday.
Republicans recognize the demographic danger. “We are moving into a very different world,” said Alex Batty, a Public Opinion Strategies pollster. “Can we keep going” as a party reliant on aging white males? “No.”
Romney exploited the anti-immigrant sentiment within the party to help defeat Texas Gov. Rick Perry in last spring’s presidential primaries, alienating many Latinos as a consequence. Those kinds of ploys just have to go, said conservative scholar Jeffrey Bell. “I absolutely believe that Republicans in Congress should be involved in comprehensive immigration reform,” he said, including a path to citizenship for immigrants who entered the country illegally but have shown devotion to their new nation through hard work, military service, and other conservative values. “Doing something for the 11 million people who are here illegally is kind of a threshold issue” for Latino voters who might otherwise vote Republican, he said. “If they think the Republican Party is not welcome to them, it is hard to get their attention on anything else.”
Rubio, along with senators such as Cruz and Flake, could be instrumental in pushing the party to take the issue on. But it’s telling that so arduous a lift as immigration is being talked of as an easier venue for bipartisan compromise than the fiscal fix.
Veteran Republican lobbyist Jack Howard says that Obama’s Democrats have two choices: They can pursue a “scorched-earth” strategy, pulling every partisan trick to build on Tuesday’s gains and seize control of the House, or they can compromise, build Republican trust, and score real bipartisan achievements. On tax reform, and other fiscal issues, the answers are “hiding in plain sight,” Howard said, available to those without partisan blinders.
In light of Tuesday’s results, it seemed like good advice to those who would rather sit back and do nothing. In the abattoir of Congress, it’s pigs that get slaughtered.
This article appeared in print as "New Faces, Old Stasis."
This article appears in the Nov. 10, 2012, edition of National Journal.