The Morning Plum: Congress’ epic fail

Budget deal or no, this place still sucks. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Budget deal or no, this place still sucks. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

With the year in Congress entering its final days, the House of Representatives last night passed a budget deal easing the sequester, and the Senate is expected to pass it next week. This is already being widely hailed as a truce in the sabotage governing wars and a return to some semblance of normalcy, however modest.

But if there’s one fact that continues to sum up this Congress, it’s this. Lawmakers remain far more likely to vote on a political, counter-productive measure on Iran than to vote on extending unemployment benefits for over one million Americans. And let’s not even talk about whether Congress will vote on any serious proposals to boost economic growth and create jobs amid a still sluggish recovery.

True, there are signs Congress may be backing off a bit on Iran. The Senate Banking Committee will not vote on a sanctions bill, and Eric Cantor has postponed a vote on his Iran measure. But it remains very possible lawmakers will revisit the sanctions bill next year, and many Dems still want to vote on something drawing a hard line on Iran. Yet such a vote probably would only hurt.

Dems who favor imposing new sanctions say it would increase the prospects of a long term deal curbing Iran’s nuclear program by increasing pressure. But I have not heard any Democrat explain convincingly why a vote now on sanctions that would take hold after the six month deal expires would have a materially different impact than a threat to hold that vote in six months would. What’s more, the White House has argued Dems should hold off to give it flexibility to pursue a deal if it remains close after the six month deadline. I have not heard any Dem convincingly rebut this request, either.

So a vote on Iran sanctions would seem to be useless at best and potentially harmful to the prospects of a major diplomatic breakthrough at worst. Yet such a vote remains more likely than a vote to extend unemployment insurance, even though it may well be unprecedented for Congress to let benefits lapse with long term unemployment this high, and even though failure on this front will impact over one million Americans.

* DESPITE LONG TERM BUDGET DEAL, AUSTERITY IS WINNING: Meanwhile, even if it’s good that the budget deal will ease the sequester, the bigger picture remains, as Paul Krugman writes today, that we remain in an era of “unprecedented government downsizing” that continues to do enormous damage:

The result was to deepen and prolong America’s jobs crisis. Those cuts in government spending are the main reason we still have high unemployment, more than five years after Lehman Brothers fell…So, about that budget deal: yes, it was a small victory for Democrats. It was also, possibly, a small step toward political sanity, with some Republicans rejecting, provisionally, the notion that a party controlling neither the White House nor the Senate can nonetheless get whatever it wants through extortion.       

But the larger picture is one of years of deeply destructive policy, imposing gratuitous suffering on working Americans. And this deal didn’t do much to change that picture.

And, of course, there is no chance of a vote on any serious jobs proposals anytime soon.

* CONSERVATIVES THREATEN RETRIBUTION OVER BUDGET DEAL: A surprising 169 House Republicans voted for the budget deal, while only 69 voted against it. As the Post’s big write up notes, this has deepened tensions between Republicans who want to show the party can still govern, and conservatives who claim this betrayal of their principles will have lasting consequences for 2014:

Instead of the dysfunction that dominated the year, House Republicans in recent weeks  had hoped to better position themselves to negotiate deals with Senate Democrats by passing legislation that was not perfect in the most conservative eyes, but that advanced their cause. But that repositioning has done little to ease tensions in the party. [...]

“The more information that gets out about this deal, the harder it is for members to vote yes and go back home and explain that vote,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action. Holler warned that Boehner will risk the Republican majority if conservative voters “are not going to motivate to turn out in November 2014.”

Hmmm, okay. The number who voted against the leadership has shrunk pretty substantially. And it’s going to be very interesting to see if the Republicans who supported the deal face any kind of meaningful backlash. I suspect they won’t.

* REPUBLICANS RUNNING FOR SENATE VOTE AGAINST BUDGET DEAL: A good catch by the Hill:

Six of the seven House Republicans running for the Senate on Thursday voted against the budget deal…Reps. Tom Cotton (R-Ark) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.), top Republican Senate recruits who don’t appear to face any threats in a primary, both voted against it, as did a trio of Georgia Republicans facing off in a crowded GOP primary: Reps. Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey and Jack Kingston. Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas), who just announced a primary challenge to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), also voted against the bill.

And so, even if the new pro-governing wing of the party is exerting increasing influence, GOP primary politics continue to pull Republicans with higher ambitions to the right, which could damage them heading into general elections.

* OBAMACARE ENROLLMENT ACCELERATES: Charles Ornstein flags some new enrollment numbers out of California:

While the California exchange enrolled 109,000 in October and November combined, the tally from the first seven days in December — 49,708 — is nearly three times the pace from a month earlier. Even more people completed applications, the step prior to choosing a plan.

Meanwhile, in New York, enrollment in private plans is surging past Medicaid signups. All this is a reminder that Obamacare can work in states where officials want it to.

* POLL SHOWS DEMS WITH MODEST BALLOT LEAD: A new Pew poll finds that Democrats continue to hold a small edge in the generic ballot matchup, 48-44, little changed since October. In fairness, Republicans hold a 14 point enthusiasm gap edge (Obamacare is a disaster!!!), and the Real Clear Politics average does show Republicans with a 2.6 point generic edge. But every poll that finds little change should remind us that it’s way too early to predict Obamacare will produce major Republican gains next year.

* DEMS DEBATE HOW TO HANDLE OBAMACARE: Alex Roarty reports that there are mild differences among Dems over how to handle the politics of the awful health law rollout going forward. As Roarty rightly notes, many Dems believe the GOP repeal stance is also a liability, and that Dems should go on offense over health care, but others are less certain of how to do this:

“Dismissing it is, to me, a sign of foolishness,” said Mark Mellman, a leading Democratic pollster who is working for [Senator Mary] Landrieu. “Having said that, obsessing over it is a sign of foolishness. Neither is justified in my view.”

I don’t know of any Dem who dismisses the idea that the law’s rollout is a big problem for Dems. But Mellman’s view that “obsessing” over this is silly is also widely shared: What matters is whether the law works over time.

* DEMS GO UP ON THE AIR TO DEFEND LANDRIEU: The Senate Majority PAC, which is working to elect Dems, goes up with a new spot attacking Landrieu’s opponent, GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy for his vote for the Paul Ryan Medicare plan and his support for a government shutdown, depicting him as “part of the problem in Washington.”

Landrieu is under fire in a big way over Obamacare. This new spot indicates vulnerable red state Dems will respond to attacks over the law by shifting the debate to Medicare and House GOP extremism and destructive governance.

* NEW CURBS ON NSA SURVEILLANCE? David Sanger scoops:

A presidential advisory committee charged with examining the operations of the National Security Agency has concluded that a program to collect data on every phone call made in the United States should continue, though under broad new restraints that would be intended to increase privacy protections, according to officials with knowledge of the report’s contents.

This will likely be seen as insufficient by civil libertarians who want the program itself rolled back. But even insufficient moves towards transparency suggest the NSA revelations really can force some kind of reform.

What else?

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