It is not at all clear that this Congress will take the steps necessary to keep the country moving forward through some short-term stimulus. That includes extending the payroll tax cut for the year, which is very much in jeopardy, and some version of the president’s plan to ease the terms on millions of mortgages, which would both stabilize the housing market and put several thousand dollars of cash into the hands of families that would spend the money and improve economic growth when we most need it.
There is a lot of talk on Capitol Hill, and among Congressional reporters, about the division among Congressional Republicans about how to handle the remainder of the year.
A solid core of lawmakers would prefer to shut it down now — to do little, to block Obama initiatives and to make sure nothing happens for which he could get credit and to avoid treading on the toes or message of the Republican presidential nominee.
There are others who fear that the unprecedented, angry disapproval Americans feel toward Congress could devastate the Republican majority in the House, with the president gaining traction through their intransigence to make the battle cry against the “do-nothing Congress” reverberate. These different views will play out openly in the next couple of weeks because of the action-forcing timetable on the payroll tax and will play out again as the president pushes hard for his mortgage plan.
There are similar divisions in the Senate, over nominations and the same policy issues. A Senate in which the coming months involve repeated use of filibusters and holds, with the president publicly calling out the minority for its obstruction and intransigence, is probably not what McConnell wants — especially if the backdrop is a House where there is an open division among majority Republicans over whether to block policies that are broadly popular.
If the remainder of this year is an accentuated version of the gridlock and division we saw last year, it could play out politically in different and unusual ways. It is not entirely fanciful to imagine a backlash against incumbents that gives Democrats back the House — and sends the Senate into GOP hands. Or it could be a backlash, like in 2006, against the president’s party.
But another real possibility is a major backlash against the Republicans as the visible party of obstruction at a time when the country needs action. It will make for a messy but fascinating year ahead.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
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