Torpor Before Temper: A Viewer’s Guide to 2014 and Early 2015

The underlying politics in both years is generally straightforward, but it will be a richer, spicier stew next year if Republicans win back control of the Senate.

US President Barack Obama makes a statement to the press on April 2, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois, on the shooting at the Fort Hood military base in Texas. One person was killed and 14 others wounded April 2, 2014 in a shooting incident at Fort Hood, a US official said.
National Journal
Major Garrett
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Major Garrett
May 13, 2014, 8 a.m.

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.

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