There is plenty that is new in the Senate. A dozen fresh faces. Twenty female senators. And in Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, America’s first openly gay senator. But the urgent question, after the Republicans’ mortifying electoral beat-down on Tuesday, is whether the party has a new strategy, especially on addressing that noxious mix of tax hikes and spending cuts looming known as the fiscal cliff.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in a taunt heard round the world back in 2010, trumpeted that his team’s top objective was defeating President Obama. It was a threat unwise and, it turns out, unmet. In part because of Republican obstructionism, the electorate’s opinion of Congress plummeted to record lows; and Senate Democrats—in what was widely expected to be a lousy year for the Left—instead scored a two-seat gain. The Dems now hold a 53-45 advantage, with two independents (Bernie Sanders of Vermont and freshman Angus King of Maine) who share their philosophy.
What does this convey for Americans and their families? Access to health care, for one thing. Lost with the dream of a President Romney and a resurgent Republican Senate is the GOP’s opportunity to employ the budget-reconciliation process to chop and slash and yank “Obamacare” out by its roots.
Resistance to the Affordable Care Act won’t end. Regulations are still to be written and reviewed. The states must set up insurance exchanges or accept those created by Uncle Sam. And the Supreme Court decision that upheld the law’s individual mandate also wreaked havoc on its requirements for expanded Medicaid coverage. At the White House Correspondents’ Dinner last spring, Obama joked (plaintively and accurately) that after spending his first term passing health care reform, he would dedicate a second one—to passing health care reform.
But with sustaining verdicts from the Supreme Court and from the voters on Tuesday, the Affordable Care Act has survived its immediate existential threats. “The law gets an opportunity to work,” said Henry Olsen, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, as the scope of Democratic success became clear on Tuesday night. “And if it works, it sinks roots.”
Less clear is the effect of Tuesday’s vote on the Senate’s trudge toward the fiscal cliff. Some of the Democratic newcomers may complicate things by tugging the chamber to the left, what with Baldwin arriving from leafy Madison and that populist Joan of Arc, Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, having defeated Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts to reclaim Edward Kennedy’s venerated seat for her party.
In Indiana, Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly beat tea party favorite Richard Mourdock in the contest to succeed departing GOP Sen. Richard Lugar. Rep. Chris Murphy whipped World Wrestling Entertainment honcho Linda McMahon in Connecticut for the seat of retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman. Former North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp won in an upset, keeping an open seat in the Democratic column. So did Rep. Mazie Hirono in Hawaii, former Gov. Tim Kaine in Virginia, and Rep. Martin Heinrich in New Mexico. And the independent King will offer Democrats a more reliable vote than did the retiring Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine.
But there were steps to the right as well. Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona saved retiring Sen. Jon Kyl’s seat for the GOP. Republican Debra Fischer takes over from Democratic centrist Ben Nelson of Nebraska. And the victory in Texas by Ted Cruz, a champion of movement conservatives, suggested that both parties had sidled toward the wings and thus padded the partisan polarity.
Yet Cruz’s biography illustrates the limits of predicting behavior in the new Congress. Yes, he beat a GOP insider in the primary and comes to Washington as a tea party hero. But his résumé—Princeton; magna cum laude at Harvard Law School; editor of the Harvard Law Review; clerk to the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist; director of the Office of Policy Planning at the Federal Trade Commission; associate deputy attorney general and policy adviser under President George W. Bush; Texas solicitor general and law professor—reeks of intellectual firepower and establishment varnish. His father fought with Fidel Castro in Cuba. No pitchfork-toting birther he.
Cruz, Fischer, and Flake will face powerful crosscurrents when they arrive—more so than their Democratic counterparts. A tide of furious conservative activists is demanding fealty in the war against big government and threatening to enforce right-wing orthodoxy by taking down mavericks in Republican primaries.
The political action arm of the Heritage Foundation showed no immediate interest in promoting cooperation. “We are in a war … to save this nation,” it declared, vowing to combat Obama in a new fundraising video, replete with scenes of chaos and a horror-movie sound track. And a group of conservative spokesmen, from Reagan-era veterans to Tea Party Patriots, insisted that Republicans dust off the tumbrels and the guillotines. “Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, [National Republican] Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, and other Republican leaders behind the epic election failure of 2012 should be replaced,” said conservative figurehead Richard Viguerie. “In any logical universe, establishment Republican consultants such as Karl Rove, Ed Gillespie, Romney campaign senior adviser Stuart Stevens, and pollster Neil Newhouse would never be hired to run or consult on a national campaign again, and no one would give a dime to their ineffective super PACs.”
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 November 10, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.