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Judy’s Notebook: Why Gridlock Isn’t Going Away

I escaped from Washington for about a week and a half after Thanksgiving, grateful for a change of scenery after the exciting but long election season. Before I left, President Obama and congressional Republicans were edging toward the “fiscal cliff,” unable to come to agreement on how to resolve differences over taxes and government spending. Even with the campaign behind them, they weren’t close to a deal that would ease the minds of businesspeople, investors and ordinary citizens worried about what failure would mean for the entire U.S. economy.

When I returned this past weekend, they were publicly as far apart as they had been earlier. But smoke signals were starting to rise from some Republicans that suggest a deal can be reached by the Jan. 1 deadline after all. A lot of coaxing remains to be done but the political reality of the President’s win was beginning to settle in.

In fact, the President’s margin of victory over Mitt Romney is shaping up to be larger than it appeared right after the election. What first looked like a 2 ½ percent margin is now a more impressive 3 ½ percent — 50.9% to 47.3%, with votes still being counted in 17 states. The go-to source on the vote count — Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report — tells us the President’s 65-plus million votes are edging closer to his vote count in 2008.

It’s also true that the President won millions more votes than did all the House Republicans combined. And you may be surprised to know it’s even the case that House Democrats – who picked up 34 FEWER seats than House Republicans — won more than a million MORE popular votes than their GOP counterparts. (How is this possible? Because in the reapportionment process that takes place every decade, Republican-controlled state legislatures have carefully drawn congressional districts to protect not only their party members, but their party’s future for elections to come.)

The upshot is that election results give the President leverage over the GOP. So do polls that show most Americans favor a tax hike on the wealthiest people. But it is also true that, again because of the way those congressional districts were drawn, more than 200 Republican House members won with better than 55 percent of the vote in their districts, giving them NO incentive to cooperate with the Democrats.

So if and when House Speaker John Boehner goes looking, as many expect he will, for a few dozen Republicans to back any compromise he ultimately reaches with the President on the fiscal cliff, the large majority of his fellow members have a good reason to look the other way. They won’t make things easy for him.

One other sign of persistent gridlock, on a very different subject: Even on an issue as universally appreciated as disability rights, Republicans are acting in lock-step opposition, arguing Tuesday that a proposed international treaty requiring that the rights of those with disabilities be respected, is actually an effort to deny Americans their rights. The Obama White House pushed the treaty, along with all Senate Democrats and eight Republicans — including former presidential nominee John McCain. Even former Senate Republican leader Bob Dole, seriously wounded in World War II, showed his support for the treaty as he watched from just off the Senate floor.

Treaties require a two-thirds vote to pass, and most Senate Republicans, led by former Senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum, voted against ratification, swayed by the argument that ratification would somehow give the United Nations a say in the health care and education choices made by American parents of children with special needs. Democrats dismissed these concerns as having no basis and the White House issued a statement afterward expressing disappointment. It lamented the idea that U.S. standards protecting those with disabilities won’t be “enshrined” at the international level, and available for the United States’ own disabled veterans when they travel overseas, despite the support of disability advocacy groups, wounded warriors and veterans and business groups.

I still expect the fiscal cliff will be avoided, but this was yet another reminder that finding common ground is as tough after the election as it was before.

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