Monday, February 21, 2011

61 Billion Things to Debate, 2012 Congressional Showdown

House GOP Passes a 2011 Budget
We are very late in the season to be talking about the budget for the year. You see, the government's fiscal 2011 budget actually began on October 1st of 2010, but as the Democratically controlled Congress of the time essentially punted on the budget, here we are.

Not that all of the Democrats reasons were bad. Don't ask, don't tell repeal, debating the Bush/Obama tax cuts (not the ending I would have liked, but an important issue nonetheless), and the START Treaty consumed the waning days of the last Congress. And not that they didn't try - an omnibus bill was on the agenda for the lame duck session of Congress, but was too expensive for the tastes of Senate Republicans, who preferred to let the incoming, more conservative congress determine the rest of the budget. In place of a budget, Congress simply put in place a couple of continuing resolutions that, in essence, kept government funded at least years levels through March 4th. Hence the showdown that we see now.

What passed the House was more or less true to the pledge that Republicans had made to cut $100B in domestic discretionary spending in year one. I say more or less, because the budget they passed cuts only $61B from the current levels of funding, but cuts $100B from the original request that President Obama had made for the year. ToMAto, Tomato.

I've written many times, but will make the point once more that this is, in large measure, a sideshow to the real budgetary choices that will have to be made. Those involve entitlement reform and military spending. You could cut 100% of domestic discretionary spending and not balance the budget. In fact, the $61B in cuts reduces this year's deficit by a whopping 4%. But I digress.

The budget cuts are brutal. Cuts to traditional conservative targets, to be sure. Planned Parenthood is axed. So is NPR and PBS. Home heating oil subsidies for poor people? Massively cut. Health care implementation funds? Forget it. Interestingly, Amtrak funding somehow survived the bevy of amendments that were debated in the House.

The final product passed the House 235-189 with all 186 Democrats who were present voting against the bill, joined by 3 Republicans, with the balance of the GOP members of the House voting in favor.

The bill has been essentially labeled a non-starter by Senate Democrats, who, in spite of a weakened majority in the Senate, are still strong enough to block bills they don't like.

Congress is in recess this week, which means it won't reconvene until February 28th. The current continuing resolution expires on March 4th, which means that Congress has one week to work out some sort of deal. I see three possibilities:
(1) Democrats and Republicans come to a fast deal
This seems unlikely and would almost certainly have to involve Democrats giving most of the ground on proposed GOP cuts. The GOP isn't in the mood to give too many concessions, given the strength of their showing in the past election and their belief that their charter is to cut spending. Democrats might give a lot of ground in order to prevent a government shutdown (look how fast they caved on extending the Bush tax cuts) but this scenario seems unlikely.
(2) Agree to pass another temporary measure
Fund the government for another month while they work something out. This seems like the most likely scenario and one that the GOP appears somewhat open to, although they are unlikely to agree to an extension at current levels of spending unless they had firm commitments on what the final budget might look like.
(3) Shutdown the government
While some on the far right seem to be itching for a government shutdown, they would be wise to remember the battles the GOP lost with President Clinton over government shutdowns. This scenario seems more likely than a fast deal for the whole year but less likely than a temporary funding measure.

Also looming is the need in late April to raise the debt ceiling. Some of the tea party loyalists want the debt ceiling hike to be voted down. But they have offered no credible plan for how the government could continue operating without continuing to accrue debt, at least in the short-term (are you going to cancel Social Security for current recipients tomorrow? Lay off all of the military? No good short-term options), so in all likelihood, the debt ceiling hike will pass fairly easily, assuming a deal is struck on the budget -- hard not to vote for the debt ceiling if you voted for the budget that caused it to need to be raised.

At least we are finally having a debate about deficits and spending. That was my hope with the divided Congress.

2012 - A Tough Senate Map for the Democrats
Every Senate election cycle is an echo to the cycle 6 years earlier -- that is, each party has to defend the seats it gained 6 years prior. 2006 was a great year for the Democrats, which makes 2012 a tough year on the map. Here is a preview of the key races.

Likely Democratic Holds (10)
California - Diane Finestein is up for re-election and even in a cycle as strong as 2010, Republicans have shown no capability to win at the statewide level in Cali.
Delaware - Tom Carper is up for re-election in another state the Dems held in 2010. Maybe if they nominate a Mike Castle, they could have a shot, but if you are Mike Castle, do you want anything to do with a state GOP that bumped Christine O'Donnell ahead of you in 2010?
Hawaii - Daniel Akaka is an institution in the Senate and in the liberal state of Hawaii. His seat should be safe.
Maryland - Ben Cardin has not yet announced his intentions, but either way, Maryland is not exactly a hotbed of conservatism, with Cardin winning fairly easily last cycle and Barbara Mikulski winning in a near walk in 2010.
Michigan - While Michigan has historically been more purple than pure blue, Debbie Stabenow has the advantage of incumbency and the benefit of demographic shifts in the state that will likely make it more liberal by 2012.
Minnesota - Could be in play in a big GOP year, but more than like Amy Kloubachar is safe in the home of Walter Mondale.
New Jersey - sure we elected Chris Christie to the state house, but in the arena of national politics, New Jersey is still a reliable blue vote. Bob Menendez should win fairly handily, especially with the only state GOP star in the Governor's mansion.
New York - Kirsten Gillebrand has to run for a full term, since the election she won last November was a special election for the last 2 years of Hillary Clinton's term. She won easily in the GOP-dominated 2010, so there is no reason to think that she won't again, especially being buoyed by victory on the 9/11 first responders bill and Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal.
Rhode Island - Sheldon Whitehouse toppled liberal Republican Lincoln Chafee 6 years ago. Rhode Island hasn't gotten any more conservative and Whitehouse is now an incumbent.
Washington - Maria Cantwell should be safe in the home of the green movement. Washington is a fairly reliable Democratic state.
Wisconsin - Herb Kohl got 67% of the vote in the last cycle. Even assuming that 2012 won't be as good a year for Democrats as 2006 was, he should win handily.

Lean Democratic Holds (3)
West Virginia - Joe Manchin has to run for a full term. West Virginia is a right-leaning state, but Manchin is a right-leaning kind of Democrat, who managed to win against a GOP tidal wave in 2010.
Ohio - Sherrod Brown will likely face a stiff challenge in this swing state, but he has the advantage of incumbency and is relatively well-liked in the state.
Pennsylvania - Bob Casey Jr.'s brand of socially and economically moderate policies and the brand name he has carried on from his father should make him a favorite in 2012.

Democratically Controlled Seats Likely to Be Competitive (7)
Florida - Bill Nelson is running for re-election and has already drawn three Republican challengers. There is chum in the water after Marco Rubio's resounding win in 2010 and Florida is a classic swing state.
Missouri - Claire McCaskill faces a similarly crowded GOP field...and Missouri is to the right of Florida in its politics.
Montana - Jon Tester eeked out a 1% win in the Democratically-dominated 2006 cycle, but he is running in libertarian conservative Montana and his politics are clearly to the left of the state. It'll be a tough fight for Tester.
Nebraska - Ben Nelson often separates himself out as the most moderate member of congress and the most conservative Democratic Senator. But he also cast the crucial vote for health care reform, which will no doubt be front and center in the campaign in this very conservative state.
New Mexico - Jeff Bingamin is retiring, leaving the race wide open in this swing state.
North Dakota - Kent Conrad is retiring, which probably makes this the single most at-risk seat for the Democrats. Given North Dakota's conservative politics, it is almost hard to imagine a scenario where the Democrats hang on to this seat.
Virginia - Jim Webb's retirement (possible to replace Robert Gates at Defense when he finally retires, although that is just speculation) opens the door to the man he ousted - former Governor and former Senator George Allen. If former Democratic Governor Tim Kaine runs, this race feels like a toss-up, if he sits it out, the dynamics seem to favor the GOP.

Likely Independent Holds (1)
Vermont - Bernie Sanders is an institution in Vermont. The only proud, avowed Socialist in congress, he'll likely go back for 6 more.

Independent Seats Likely to be Competitive (1)
Connecticut - Joe Lieberman is retiring, which will likely put this seat back in Democratic hands. Such a pick-up wouldn't shift the operating majority in the Senate.

Likely Republican Holds (5)
Indiana - Richard Lugar may face a primary challenge but either way, the seat seems unlikely to fall into Democratic hands. Sure Indiana voted for Obama, but it is still far more conservative than the country as a whole.
Mississippi - If Roger Wicker even draws Democratic opposition, it will be fairly token...this is probably the GOP's safest seat.
Tennessee - Bob Corker should be safe in heavily Republican Tennessee.
Texas - in spite of Kay Bailey Hutchinson's retirement, Texas is a reliably Republican state and the GOP field appears stronger than the Democratic field. Not likely to change hands.
Utah - This IS Orrin Hatch's seat and he is running for another term. He won 62% of the vote in heavily Democratic 2006.
Wyoming - John Barasso won 73% of the vote in 2008 in the special election for his seat. Given that 2008 was a pro-Democrat year, he should do about as well in election for a full term.

Lean Republican Hold (2)
Arizona - Jon Kyl is retiring, leaving the field wide open. But Arizona is still right of center and the Arizona GOP has one of the strongest organizations in the country.
Maine - Olympia Snowe is running as a Republican in a Democratic state. But she is also a moderate and has historically been popular back home, wining a whopping 74% of the vote in 2006. If she loses a primary challenge from the right, all bets are off.

GOP Held Seats Likely to Be Competitive (2)
Massachusetts - Scott Brown has to reprise his miracle win in a special election that rested control of Ted Kennedy's seat from the Democrats. Not an easy task in deep blue Massachusetts, where he is sure to draw a strong competitor.
Nevada - a swing state to be sure and John Ensign has had his share of scandal while in office, but he still holds the advantage of incumbency and has no announced challengers yet.

A very tough map for the Democrats. 2 to 4 competitive races for GOP seats and 7 to 10 seats to defend. If it's a strongly Democratic year, they might hold the Senate, if it's a strong GOP year, they could be down to 44 seats or less. In a middle of the road year, you'd expect them to lose around 3 seats, just enough to give the GOP control of the Senate.

The House is another store, because it is an echo to 2010, not 2006, and, of course, the GOP already has the majority. Also, add in the layer of complexity of redistricting, which, given population trends in the census, should give a boost to the GOP, and you have a year where the Democrats may make some small inroads, given that the GOP won virtually every competitive seat in 2010, but are unlikely to gain the majority.

Obviously, a great deal more to come. Stay tuned.

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