We knew Congress and the president would be facing the debt ceiling and expiration of last year’s continuing resolution (since a budget wasn’t passed). Then they decided to punt on the sequestration, kicking it down the road a couple months and setting another deadline. Add to that the exceptionally controversial nomination of Chuck Hagel for defense secretary, the selection of Jack Lew for Treasury (also setting up a big Senate fight) and the elevation of John Brennan to Central Intelligence Agency director, whose nomination may be held up until the administration comes clean on the investigation of national security leaks. Throw in the president’s gun proposals. Do you see a pile-up on the legislative highway? And that doesn’t even include immigration reform, which President Obama vowed to pass.
Not only is the calendar bursting at the seams, but the president seems to have intentionally set out to pick time-consuming fights with lawmakers on nominees ensuring partisan infighting and the potential for filibusters. He could have alleviated a lot of the traffic jam by making a comprehensive deal on the fiscal cliff, but he chose to dig in and make a minimalistic deal.
There are a few explanations to explain this state of affairs.
In the disarray of the first term and with Lew transitioning to Treasury, perhaps no one thought to game this all out and look at the legislative calendar. Incompetence and disorganized governance are never in short supply with the Obama crew.
Alternatively, maybe Obama wants only a series of fights in which the Republicans will look obstructionist and he will get to avoid the hard choices that go with issues such as entitlement reform. He has viewed each battle as a partisan opportunity to diminish opponents rather than to make significant strides in solving the nation’s problems. An overcrowded calendar certainly fits with that modus operandi.
It is also possible that Obama figures he won the election and Republicans will cave on a series of policy fights and capitulate in confirmation battles. In other words, he’ll simply sweep the table. This supposes Republicans have no mandate of their own (untrue) and/or are hapless (partially true). But it does dispel the pretense that he is moderate, post-partisan and interested in real compromise.
The good news for Republicans is that the president likely won’t get much of what he wants, and he really does have to go through the House on policy and by the 45 Republicans in the Senate on nominations. If the name of the game is to lose as little ground as possible to a president bent on refashioning America, this is not a bad schedule. Gridlock may not be good politics, but it can be good policy if the alternative is radical gun control, more spending and higher taxes.
The bad news, however, is that Republicans will have to pick and choose their fights, learning to force Democrats to take unpleasant votes and thereby expose Democratic lawmakers, especially in the Senate, to very tough votes that will hamper them in 2014. They can’t filibuster every (or maybe any) nominee, drive the country into default mode and shut down the government without losing more public support and having to backpedal.
The House and Senate Republicans should repeat over and over again the steps they are willing to take on fiscal discipline and contrast that with the actions the president has taken. They should use confirmation hearings to expose and (if fortunate) sink the worst of the nominees. They can’t win them all or even most of them, but by treading carefully with some sort of game plan they might win a few. Moreover, they should seek to separate as many Democrats as possible from the president’s radical agenda and nominees in an effort to forge bipartisan cooperation, albeit if only to stop the ever-more arrogant and ideological president.