Divided Congress Unlikely to Agree on Deficit, Taxes Pre-November

PHOTO: John Boehner and Nancy PelosiJ. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, left, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., are shown in this April 6, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington.

After the government reported dismal economic news Friday, most members of the House of Representatives retreated to their districts for a three-day break; time enough to contemplate their future and the country's future a little more than 150 days before the Nov. 6 election.

The House is not in session Monday so most representatives won't return to Washington until Tuesday afternoon, but the political landscape is taking a more definitive shape as both parties prepare for a final political push to beef up their respective records.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently wrote a memo to the House Republican Conference outlining the legislative agenda this summer: passing appropriations bills, cutting regulations, fully repealing the health care law, and voting on a bill he says would prevent "the largest tax increase in history.

"We're not going to, if we can, allow taxes to go up on anybody," Cantor, R-Va., said Friday. "We'll put a bill on the floor this summer to make sure that that signal is sent to the working families and the small businesses of this country."

More than five months before the election, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., highlighted an ear-catching statistic at her news conference last Thursday when she ripped the GOP for a light load of congressional business on the legislative calendar.

"In case you're making your plans, there are only 44 legislative days left in this congress," she grumbled. "Six legislative days until the next recess: today, tomorrow, a few days next week. And then we're off again, and what we have seen here is that Republicans have no job plans…Their only plan is more tax breaks for the wealthy, tax breaks for big oil, and corporations that ship jobs overseas."

When asked by ABC News last week whether the House would take up any of the items on the president's to-do list for Congress this summer, House Speaker John Boehner dismissed the significance of those measures by imploring President Obama to join him on the major issues menacing the divided Congress. These include the looming tax mess, the $1 trillion in sequester cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act that are due at the end of the year, and the nation's $16 trillion national debt.

"Instead of another campaign speech, the president might want to engage with Democrats and Republicans here on Capitol Hill to handle the big policies that are affecting our economy," he said.

"Maybe the president ought to get out of the badminton game and get into the rugby game that's right in front of him."

While Boehner recently admitted that "it's hard to keep 218 frogs in a wheelbarrow long enough to get a bill passed," the GOP's internal tug-of-war has left the speaker with little incentive to break from his party's steadfast, unwavering principle: no tax increases.

"Republicans continue to focus our efforts here in the House on those things that'll help our economy," Boehner, R-Ohio, reiterated last week. "I believe that raising taxes at this point in our recovery is a big mistake."

That signal has blared loudly during Boehner's reign as speaker. Last July, that reluctance to increase taxes kept the speaker from cutting a deal with President Obama, after talks ended when the speaker refused the president's demand for more tax revenues after the Senate's 'Gang of Six' recommended a deficit reduction package that included a higher sum, signaling the prospect of bipartisan support for a balanced agreement.

Boehner kicked off the latest economic episode last month by drawing an elephant in the sand and doubling down on his decree that Republicans will not accept a hike in the debt ceiling unless the amount is exceeded by spending reductions. Democrats quickly berated Boehner for submitting to pressure from the "extreme" Tea Party wing of the GOP.

The "dollar-for-dollar" vow also dictated the GOP's position in the negotiations to increase the debt limit last summer, with mixed results.

In the end, enough Republicans held together and Democrats reluctantly signed off on an agreement with the intent of getting even on a "big deal" during the super committee negotiations. But the super committee dragged to a stalemate and last summer's $2.4 trillion deal only bought lawmakers enough space to keep the government paying its debts through the 2012 election.

In the aftermath of the super committee's failure, lawmakers passed a number of short-term fixes to long-term problems, and in the process created the "taxmageddon" recipe of legislative imperatives to be addressed during the lame duck session of Congress, a concoction that will surely factor into the fate of Republican and Democratic incumbents alike this fall.

According to a ABC News/ Washington Post poll conducted by Langer Research last month, 52 percent of Americans call the economy the single most important issue in their vote, with all other responses – like repealing the president's signature health care law, reducing the budget deficit, taxes, family values, etc., in the single digits.

Now, the tanking financial markets, coupled with the disappointing jobs report, make reelection a daunting challenge for incumbents up and down the ballot. Already six incumbents, four Democrats and two Republicans, have already been defeated in House primary contests. Indiana Sen. Dick Luger, currently the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, also lost his primary as voters stoked the anti-incumbent fever that propelled Republicans into the House majority in 2010.

Congressional insiders say a "big deal" is practically impossible ahead of this fall's election. The battle lines are already drawn and each political party is depending on an authoritative mandate from the voters to direct the political class on how best to achieve deficit reduction.

Republicans like to emphasize that they control just half of one-third of the federal government. Democrats blame Republicans for using that limited check on power to obstruct the legislative process. As a result, each party is banking on voters to award them with unified control of both chambers of Congress and the White House.

House Republicans are hoping a class of a dozen so-called young gun candidates will displace a group of Democrat incumbents to increase their 50-seat majority. On the other side, Pelosi and the rest of her colleagues in the House minority are relying on dozens of Democratic candidates to reclaim seats held by Republicans in congressional districts that President Obama won in 2008.

And if divided government remains after November, brace for a free-for-all, as the "minority-majority" once again plays the spoiler until voters get another try in 2014.