Will post-election battles trump fiscal conservatism?

Unlike in 2010, Democrats don’t just need to retake the House for either party to truly gain control of Washington. Because the election results last November showed that independents and moderate Republicans — and…

Will post-election battles trump fiscal conservatism?

Unlike in 2010, Democrats don’t just need to retake the House for either party to truly gain control of Washington.

Because the election results last November showed that independents and moderate Republicans — and even blue-collar Democrats who helped get President Barack Obama elected — now hold significantly more influence in Washington than they did two years ago.

Even though Democrats still had the largest number of seats at stake in the legislative branch, and had the president’s party in power, the Republican edge on Capitol Hill had proved durable.

A CNN/ORC International poll last fall showed that independents and even moderate Republicans had lost faith in both parties. When asked if they identified more with their party or the other, they were more likely to pick the other one.

And independents were widely blamed for contributing to the decision of Republicans to make an ideologically rigid House Freedom Caucus their leading force. The select committee on Benghazi, during which Republicans were emboldened to dig into the administration’s record on the attacks, was also seen as a strategy aimed at recruiting issues and highlighting the GOP’s rift.

Because Republicans still control the Senate, Democrats can expect a tougher primary campaign for the remaining Democratic senators seeking re-election in Republican-leaning states.

Even in the event of a clean sweep of both the House and Senate for Democrats, much of the partisan rancor that is likely to define Washington after November could be an integral part of passing a budget in early January, when Democrats will still be in charge of the House.

It would be better to embrace the middle of the road, Obama has argued, than lose a war of attrition on his own agenda.

Republicans, of course, will take very different approaches. The GOP’s priority for the next Congress will likely be giving its caucus a solid deal, if they win the House, to defend in 2016.

Both sides insist they can pivot to the middle, but Republicans will likely fight over which ideas are center stage in their ability to rein in the overall budget and dig into popular entitlement programs in ways that force Democrats to give ground.

But because partisan infighting has become more prominent in the last few weeks as House Democrats began what they hope will be a sustained attack on new GOP proposals to revamp Medicare, Republicans also see a role for that one particular group: the right flank of their party.

The Democratic leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have not been able to find a way to reach across the aisle, and their responses to Republican efforts have generally been confused and sometimes dismissive.

There’s been a rationale to show some level of fiscal restraint that could also play to the center, and they’re eager to have congressional Republicans lead the legislative agenda on it.

“Is anybody running the country that doesn’t want us to stop spending more money than we’re bringing in?” asked Rep. David Rouzer, R-N.C., who chaired the House GOP transition team.

House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price told CNN Monday that Republicans are already starting to formulate tax reform legislation, which the chairman said was something that happens relatively early in the legislative cycle “because in the fourth year [of the Obama administration], you’re not going to do a lot of big things.”

Still, with election wins for Republicans, there will be more pressure to craft a more legislative agenda, one that will not provoke as much anger as the immigration and foreign policy fights of recent months.

Republicans will push for, and Obama could help pass, entitlement reforms, for example, something that Democrats will likely not be willing to support.

But any major reforms will be difficult to pass through Congress, with key Senate Democrats showing little appetite for big changes in the current contours of the programs. Democrats should likely avoid tampering with social security and health care, which could be seen as a threat to the electorate overall, and emphasize entitlement reforms aimed at driving down Medicare’s costs.

CNN senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash contributed to this report.

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