Congress and the courage question

December 19, 2012

President Obama on Wednesday called for members of Congress to summon something they aren't known for: courage.

Obama at a news conference said members -- presumably most of them Republicans -- need to gather "one tiny iota of the courage those teachers in Newtown summoned on Friday" in order to pass gun control.

The problem? For most of those GOP members of Congress, they will also need to summon unusual "courage" -- or, to use a more neutral term, "daring" -- in order to vote for a couple other big-ticket items that are already on the agenda.


President Obama in the White House briefing room. (Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)

In fact, the next few weeks/months are a veritable gauntlet of what are likely to be very tough votes for the GOP.

1. The "fiscal cliff"

2. Gun control

3. Immigration reform

The first two issues are pressing, and votes should happen very soon -- the fiscal cliff deadline is the end of the year, and Obama set a January deadline for gun control proposals. And the third is important for Republicans to get done sooner than later because of their very poor showing among Latinos in the 2012 election.

Looking back on what Congress has done over the last decade or so, it's hard to find votes that were harder for Republicans to take. All three issues are potential landmines for the GOP when it comes to the party's base.

And that goes pretty much no matter what the final proposals look like.

When it comes to the fiscal cliff, it has become pretty clear that tax rate increases will be part of a deal. When it comes to guns, any new measures are likely to run afoul of the powerful National Rifle Association, which has resisted basically any new gun laws. And when it comes to immigration reform, the package essentially has to include a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country. Polling has consistently shown the GOP base is largely opposed to all three of these things.

As we've written on this blog many times, just about all members of Congress are highly averse to anything that even has the possibility of threatening their political careers -- they wouldn't have gotten to Congress without that political bone -- and the vast majority of them have more to worry about in the primary than in the general election.

Obama alluded to this fact on Wednesday -- the very reason he spoke in terms of "courage."

("Courage," for what it's worth, paints right and wrong in pretty absolute terms. Republicans can and likely will argue that voting against additional gun control measures is really the courageous thing to do. That's why we prefer to call it "daring" -- i.e. accepting of risk -- instead.)

But call it "courage" or call it "daring," recent history shows it's in short supply in Washington, and it's often a zero-sum game. And the looming procession of very tough votes makes it that much harder for Republicans to say 'aye' to any one of them.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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