Tough Votes on the Fiscal Cliff Loom for Congress

Congressional Leaders Meet With President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Photo by Reuters/ Larry Downing.)

Fall creeps towards winter in Washington and the chill is reaching an equilibrium in the Capitol. Votes are still being tallied in the just-concluded 2012 election and partisanship continues to permeate our nation’s capital like cold air through an old window. Talk of bipartisanship is fleeting as the scathing soundbites of ideologues are tweeted and re-tweeted across Washington.

Republicans and Democrats seem to be talking past each other as they discuss the ongoing fiscal cliff negotiations, specifically when it comes to addressing revenues, which these days is Washington-speak for taxes.

“We’ve put real concessions on the line by putting revenues on the table right up front,” House Speaker John Boehner said on Thursday morning. “Unfortunately, many Democrats continue to rule out sensible spending cuts that must a part of any sensible agreement that will reduce our deficit.”

“I don’t understand his brain,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said when asked in a press conference about the Speaker’s charge of Democratic intransigence regarding a debt reduction solution. The colorful line proved to be low-hanging Twitter fodder for the reporters in the room but did little to advance the narrative of what a deal would look like.

Word leaked late Thursday of the White House’s opening bid for a debt settlement deal: a $1.6 trillion increase in tax revenue over the next ten years (with top income earners accounting for over half that amount), nonspecific cuts of $400 billion to Medicare and other entitlements, $50 billion in economic stimulus focused on infrastructure spending, home mortgage relief for underwater mortgages and a permanent agreement on the executive branch’s authority to raise the nation’s borrowing limit (debt ceiling) among other things. The deal was presented by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to Congressional Republicans earlier in the day.

Boehner dismissed the proposal by saying he was “disappointed” with the offer. And in an interview with the National Review, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell referred to both the proposal and the meeting with Geithner as “unserious.”

The proposed deal, including the savings (cuts) from Medicare and the increased revenue (taxes) are strikingly similar to the budget proposed by the White House for 2013. That budget was rejected entirely in both the House and the Senate earlier this year. A combined 513 members of Congress voted against it without a single vote for its approval.

At the same time, some on Capitol Hill are privately complaining about being on the sidelines for a deal that, to this point, has mostly been negotiated by leadership behind closed doors, leaving members vulnerable to a vote on whatever deal makes its way out of the meetings and on to the floor. Members of Congress are searching for ways to buttress themselves against an uber-partisan primary challenge (see Richard Mourdock) while still leaving themselves enough flexibility to run on more moderate positions in a general election. Votes on popular entitlement programs, like Medicare and Social Security, tax rates and deductions, like the incredibly popular though questionably effective deduction for home mortgage interest, leave politicians worrying about the attacks they would face in a re-election fight. For Republicans especially, the thought of being challenged in a primary for having passed a trillion dollar tax increase is downright terrifying.

Contentious votes are not the only problem for members of Congress constantly eyeing their re-election prospects. Following the most expensive election in history, Senators and House members are under even more pressure to build up their campaign funds in preparation for 2014. In this year’s most expensive Senate race — the Massachusetts match up between Sen. Scott Brown and Senator-Elect Elizabeth Warren — the candidates spent over $70 million. The most expensive House race — the Minnesota contest between Rep. Michelle Bachmann and challenger Jim Graves — saw the candidates spend over $20 million. Partially due to the increasing cost of modern campaigning (advertising, data analysis, etc.) and partially because of the emergence of Super PACs after the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 2010 case F.E.C v. Citizen’s United, campaigning has become a full time job for politicians on Capitol Hill.

“Most Americans would be shocked — not surprised, shocked — if they knew how much time a U.S. Senator spends raising money,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ind., told NPR earlier this year.

If you want to know exactly how much time politicians spend fundraising, the Sunlight Foundation put together a calendar tracking the parties being hosted by or for politicians or advocacy groups. For example, in the week after Thanksgiving, less than two weeks after the conclusion of the 2012 election, there will be 18 fundraising events.

And campaigning itself has turned into a bad daytime television show. The slow burn of the 2014 campaign began as soon as the previous one ended. The night of the election, Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was on the phone with members who lost their election bids trying to turn them out again in 2014. The following day, the National Republican Campaign Committee put out a press release spinning its winning campaigns in the House as a sort of ideological dragon slaying, granting victorious Republicans virtue in the fact they had, “kept our promise to the voters who elected us.”

The protector of one such promise is the anti-tax exponent Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, who, in a safe, keeps signed pledges from 238 members of the House of Representatives and 41 Senators promising two things: to “oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and business” and to “oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”

Perhaps no figure in Washington better personifies the ongoing struggle of the Republican movement than Norquist. The soft-spoken former director of the College Republicans holds sway over Republicans by playing to their fear of befalling the same fate as George H.W. Bush in his 1992 race against Bill Clinton, when his famous pledge, “Read my lips: no new taxes” was turned against him.

In a forum this week, Norquist described President Obama’s early stimulus program this way:

“He ran in and spent all that money thinking that the American people had signed off on that because they voted for him and didn’t they know that was his secret plan, and he ran out and overplayed his mandate.”

But this year, things may be different.

In the exit polls following this year’s election, 60 percent of voters said they supported a tax increase on those earning over $250,000 per year. Of that 60 percent, 13 percent actually said they would be in favor of an across-the-board tax cut (though only 19.6 percent of those supporting this increase were Republicans). That gives cover to legislators as they vote on a debt reduction deal and have to face the music with their constituents.

Some GOP members are already beginning to reconsider their position on decoupling the top rates from the lower and middle-income rates in the fiscal cliff negotiations. According to Politico earlier this week, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., urged his fellow Republicans in a closed door meeting to cast away the top rates in their negotiations, citing a shift in public opinion and sensing an opportunity to disarm Democrats of their most valuable negotiating tool.

Speaker Boehner disagreed, though he referred to Cole as a “wonderful friend of mine and a great supporter of mine.”

At the same time, like Cole, some other veteran lawmakers are ready to cede some ground and move forward on a deal.

“We have to address our problem,” Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said in an interview with the NewsHour. “The only way you can do that is through a combination of revenue and significant entitlement reform.”

Coburn’s Democratic colleague, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, described his role this way: “If you don’t like to fight fires, don’t become a fireman. And if you don’t like to take tough votes, don’t become a Senator.”

Whatever the final fiscal cliff deal looks like, both Republicans and Democrats will find congruity in the challenges of compromise — defending their votes to constituents, partisan purists and deep-pocketed campaign groups.

Washington has until the end of the year to resolve its differences. Whether a deal can be agreed upon before the chill of fall turns to the cold of winter remains to be seen.