In the wake of the 2010 Midterm Election, defeated members of Congress have begun packing their things and moving from their offices to cubicles. Many Republicans know exactly how they feel: Demoralized and defeated following the 2008 election cycle, Republicans lacked the enthusiasm and popularity that had been instrumental in electing Barack Obama president. Since 2008, voter anger toward Democrats swelled in the midst of a struggling economy and a growing national debt. A wave of anti-establishment, anti-big government fever took politicians by surprise giving Republicans a historic midterm victory.
The prospect of Obama’s agenda moving forward has now been placed in serious jeopardy. The main question will be whether the president and his fellow Democrats can find common ground with the GOP, or if they will build fences and hope the elephants fail to seize the opportunity.
There were early signs of trouble for Democrats. Republicans won governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey, and Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown seized anti-establishment momentum to wrestle away a senate seat held by the late Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy for years. Opposition to health care, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and government spending fueled Republican campaigns. There were numerous Tea Party rallies with thousands of demonstrators. Independent voters, once a loyal Obama voting block, turned sharply against the president’s agenda. As a result, Republicans flipped more seats in the House of Representatives than any party in a midterm election since 1938.
With Republicans now in control of the House of Representatives, expect to see changes in the activities taking place on Capitol Hill. Expect a hold on climate legislation, immigration reform, and additional stimulus packages. The first major battle has already begun in the lame duck session on whether to extend Bush tax cuts for all income groups. Specifically, debate is focused on whether to allow the tax cuts for those making over $250,000 to expire. Given current economic conditions and political positioning, Republicans have the momentum on this issue. The unemployment rate rose to 9.8% in November. Senator elect Mark Kirk (R-IL) has already been sworn into office and moderate Senate Democrats have publicly stated they support extending the tax cuts for the entire tax spectrum (e.g. Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Evan Bayh (D-IN)). As a result, the Obama administration recently negotiated a proposed tax deal with Republicans. The agreement would extend all of the Bush tax cuts and extend unemployment benefits to out of work Americans.
Although the Obama administration is confident the measure will pass Congress, the proposed deal has opposition from both parties. Many Democrats, like Gary Ackerman (D-NY), have expressed serious concerns and voiced opposition to the agreement. Additionally, Republicans (e.g. Michele Bachmann (R-MN)) have voiced opposition to the plan following CBO estimates that the proposed tax plan would add 900 billion to the national deficit over the next five years.
Republicans do not have the votes to repeal Obama’s health care legislation; however, they will have the opportunity to delay its implementation by blocking funds to government agencies. This will make the 2012 election cycle even more critical for both parties. Should the Republicans gain both chambers of congress and the presidency, they can and will freely proceed with repealing the legislation. Given this prospect, health care reform could become a major GOP campaign strategy. Republicans enjoy a seven point advantage over Democrats in public opinion polling on which party voters trust most on health care. Republicans could effectively use the issue to rally voters and give them larger majorities and even the presidency in the 2012 elections.
A majority of Americans want Republicans and the president to compromise and work together to solve the country’s problems. However, this is unlikely to happen. Voters trust the GOP more than Democrats on the economy, taxes, health care, Afghanistan, and immigration. Therefore, it is likely that compromise, if possible, will have to come from President Obama. U.S. involvement in Afghanistan seems to be the most likely area where they can work together since a substantial majority of Congressional Republicans will continue to support and fund the president's surge strategy; however, it is likely they will insist on a conditions-based time table.
Given the enormous challenges currently before the country, it is unlikely the president has any option other than to try and work with Republicans on major issues. Executive orders are useless with respect to treaties and budgets. Eight Republican senators are needed for Senate approval of the New START treaty and fourteen will be needed to pass the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), with the former being more like to create a compromise. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) has been conducting negotiations with key Republicans and has stated that only a few issues remain. However, do not expect the same cooperation from the GOP on CTBT. Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Republican Whip, is a key figure in negotiations and has continually criticized the treaty.
Arguably one of the most important developments of the 2010 election cycle was the results of governor and state house races across the country. Republicans made key gains in several swing states by picking up governorships and either maintaining control of, or gaining, state legislatures (e.g. Pennsylvania and Ohio). In several of these pivotal swing states, this will dictate how new Congressional districts are drawn following the 2010 Census. New lines will be drawn so that the likelihood of the Democrats regaining control of the U.S. House of Representatives will be significantly decreased.
Following substantial Republican gains in Congress, President Obama’s agenda will have to be modified and adjusted. Even if the president successfully creates a more Republican-friendly agenda, he will likely incur enormous opposition on domestic issues, face investigation of his legislative achievements, and be pressured to take harder foreign policy stances. Additionally, Republican gains at the state level will make it significantly harder for Democrats to regain control of the House of Representatives following redistricting. This was certainly a midterm November to remember.
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