Constant crisis, a more aggressive president, maybe even a more accommodating Republican Party: What last week's agreement tells us about the road ahead
The fiscal cliff was not the end. If anything, it was the beginning of a new season of crisis on Capitol Hill. Aren't you glad?
The coming months will bring three new deadline-focused congressional crises. First, we'll hit the debt ceiling -- that could come as soon as February 15, meaning Congress, having already ruined New Year's, could also spoil Valentine's Day. Then, on March 1, the automatic spending cuts of the so-called sequester, which last week's fiscal-cliff deal postponed for two months, come due once again. And by late March, it will be time to pass the next spending bill to fund the federal government.
If it sounds like a Groundhog Day of recurring fiscal crises, it probably is. But that's just the most immediate legacy of the fiscal-cliff deal, which, by postponing the sequester and debt-ceiling issues, helped create this situation.
In ways both concrete and abstract, the cliff deal -- though technically a product of the last Congress and the first Obama administration -- is likely to set the tone for the coming years' dance between Obama and Congress. As the successor to the debt-limit talks of 2011 that did so much to redefine Obama's stance toward Capitol Hill, the fiscal-cliff deal's virtues (a bipartisan deal that got done before the "cliff" could meaningfully take effect) and shortcomings (it's an incomplete solution that left much unresolved) likely foreshadow the prospects for congressional action on a range of issues, for better and worse.
* Constant crisis. It's not just the triple whammy of looming deadlines. Never underestimate Congress's ability to solve one crisis by creating another. That's what may happen with the debt ceiling: The possibility has been raised that rather than agree to raise it for a year or two, Congress may only extend it for, say, a month at a time, creating a series of new crises as far as the eye can see. The same may be true for the government's budget. It's currently funded by a short-term continuing resolution passed in September that expires at the end of March. Congress is expecting to pass an omnibus appropriations bill at that time, but it's not clear how long the bill will last. Nor should we have too much faith that the sequester gets resolved rather than further postponed. Both Republicans and Democrats say they want spending cuts but not these spending cuts, and neither party has managed to come up with a politically palatable alternative. As a result, "what it seems will happen is a series of smaller and smaller deals," said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress and a former Obama adviser.
* No time for anything else. Remember when Obama had big plans to tackle immigration, gun control, and other policy priorities? Forget it. If Congress and the White House are constantly haggling over short-term fixes to taxes and spending, they're not going to be able to get anything else done. Also crowding the docket: nominations for second-term Cabinet members, some of which -- particularly the naming of former Senator Chuck Hagel to head the Pentagon -- are bound to be contentious.
* The end of Obama-Boehner. The president and House speaker's bad romance has been a years-long saga. We thought it had ended in tears after the summer of 2011 with the breakdown of the debt talks. But the two, with their shared, quixotic ambition of making a "big deal," just couldn't quit each other, and they tried again for the fiscal cliff. It didn't work out -- Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell ended up saving the day instead after Boehner concluded Obama wasn't willing to make sufficient concessions, and House Republicans weren't willing to follow the speaker's lead. Now, it seems likely that the relationship is really over. "I think that the Boehner-Obama relationship is shot," said John Feehery, a GOP strategist and former staffer to Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert. "The center of gravity for cutting deals is going to move over to the Senate. And nothing's going to be easy. Both Boehner and McConnell have already gotten a lot of grief from the right wing, which is going to make them even more cautious."
Feehery believes any future deals are likely to be worked out between the White House and Senate Republicans, with the unruly, divided House on the sidelines. There's another big looming question: Will Boehner be willing to pass more bills with principally Democratic votes, the way the fiscal-cliff deal was approved? That could mean more compromise legislation gets through -- but it would also likely undermine Boehner's already-weak hold on his caucus.
* A more aggressive Obama. The 2011 debt-ceiling talks exasperated Democrats, who felt Obama proved a weak negotiator. (Jesse Jackson, for example, told me at the time: "[Republicans] feel they can keep pushing and he'll keep giving. They have not seen a stiffness.") Some on the left now feel the administration caved in the fiscal-cliff talks, too, believing the president got too little in return for the greatest point of leverage he's likely to get in the foreseeable future, and on a potential Susan Rice nomination. But most were still cheered that Obama stood firm on most of his priorities and forced Republicans to allow tax rates on the rich to rise. With his nomination of Hagel and insistence that he will refuse to negotiate over the debt limit, Obama has signaled a more aggressive posture toward Congress as he begins his second term. "The president and his team learned the hard way during the debt-limit debacle that you can't negotiate with the hostage takers that are the Republican leaders in the House and Senate," said Jim Manley, a former top staffer to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "I understand he is taking a pounding right now in certain corners, but I believe that this bodes well for his second term."
* A more accommodating GOP? There's a question mark here because, just as House Republicans' cooperation was the biggest wild card in the fiscal-cliff debate, the GOP's stance toward the upcoming deadlines is also the biggest unknown. Republicans I've talked to about it frankly have no idea how their party's leaders will handle the coming fights.
On the one hand, a senior Republican senator, Texas's John Cornyn, has publicly endorsed refusing to raise the debt ceiling and forcing a government shutdown. And the near-breakdown of the fiscal-cliff deal in the House wasn't a good sign for Boenher's ability to marshal support for future deals. On the other hand, the fiscal-cliff deal did get done in the end. And other senior Republicans haven't taken Cornyn's line -- McConnell, notably, refused to embrace a shutdown in multiple interviews on the Sunday political talk shows last weekend. As with the fiscal cliff, Republicans appear to have internalized the no-win political realities of the situation: Polls show they'd likely be blamed for a lack of agreement, even as Obama gets the credit once an agreement is reached.
"I took a little heart that the base of the Republican Party is not willing to say they will default," said Tanden, pointing to comments made dismissing that option by the Wall Street Journal editorial writer Stephen Moore. "My sense of how it's perceived is that, in the post-election period, it's hard for Republicans to manifest what they're for in a way that the mainstream of Washington and the broad public can deal with."