Will the Fierce Election Year Tone Paralyze Congress’ Legislative Year?

Jan 5, 2012 3:18pm

If 2011 is best politically remembered as divided, then 2012 may be the year of defiance.

“2012 is going to be a good year,” President Obama said Wednesday in Ohio.

This statement came just moments before Obama announced that he would be circumventing Congress by making recess appointments.

The move immediately enraged Republicans in Congress, likely setting the stage for a year that could mostly be remembered for politics over policy, an election-year of wrangling over legislative achievements.

Election years by nature raise the temperature, expand divisions and increase the intensity. But just five days into this new election year, it’s clear the president and Congress are setting up a particularly poignant year of bickering over business, and grandstanding over governing as they inch even closer to the fall elections.

Obama’s decision Wednesday to use a recess appointment to put in place Richard Cordray, his choice for director of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, unleashed a blizzard of fierce Republican rhetoric.

“President Obama, in an unprecedented move, has arrogantly circumvented the American people by ‘recess’ appointing Richard Cordray as director of the new CFPB,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday. “This recess appointment represents a sharp departure from a long-standing precedent that has limited the president to recess appointments only when the Senate is in a recess of 10 days or longer. ”

Such harsh statements from Republicans kept flying throughout the day, indicating not only how controversial Obama’s move was in the eyes of Republicans but also how the New Year did little to wipe the slate clean from last year’s division.

Republicans further charged that the move Wednesday was intentionally provocative from a White House that has made a strategy out of running against Congress and a president who, they contend, has all-but-written-off the legislative branch.

With both sides keenly aware that in an election year the battle for messaging is even more important, it prompts the question will anything get done in the election year?

Both sides insist that they intend to work with the other side this year. Both sides agree the first legislative item this year is  the long-term extension of the payroll tax holiday, which has every chance of getting passed smoothly.

But what legislative item comes next — and at what pace legislation actually gets passed– will be largely dictated and defined by election year messaging.

Republicans are already charging that the White House that is “walking away” from the legislative agenda this year, putting Obama’s reelection above governing.

The White House has made no secret about their strategy to run against a “do nothing” Congress.

A key part of the campaign and administration’s early 2012 strategy will be to ramp up the pace of the “We Can’t Wait” initiatives. Since October, Obama put in place some 20 executive actions that do not require Congressional approval and are aimed to boost public opinion of his job performance at the expense of Congress’ approval rate.

“We aren’t going to fall into their trap,” a Republican Congressional aide says, insisting that “reality trumps clever marketing schemes.”

“We will be contrasting the president’s desire to simply campaign the next year and our desire to simply produce,” another Republican Congressional aide added.

Republican aides point to the hefty legislative agenda Capitol Hill faces this session. They say the payroll tax extension is only one among many issues like the FAA extension, the highway bill, a budget, the Keystone XL oil pipeline project and other job creation measures that need to get done in Congress this session.

Republicans say the administration’s strategy of “We Can’t Wait” initiatives shows that the White House has no intention, especially now that it’s an election year, to work with Congress.

“To have the president of the United States to give up on legislative agenda is stunning,” a top Republican Senate aide says. “It’s bizarre to just give up on Jan. 4 for a very important year.”

The White House disputes this adamantly, and charges that they will continue to try to work with Congress as long as Republicans in Congress try to work with them.

But, they counter, the president “is going to do what he needs to do unilaterally,” a White House spokesman says, if Congress stands in the way of progress being made.

“Looks like (Republicans) are willing to use every excuse to continue their partisan destruction of the president’s agenda,” a Democratic aide says of the Republicans early-year messaging.

This is of course just par the course in an election year, experts say, adding though that it’s particularly intense this time around.

“It doesn’t have to happen this way, but it is happening this way,” Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, says of the battle between the White House and the Congress during an election year.

Ornstein points to the 1996 election as an example. The year prior was defined by confrontations between then President Bill Clinton, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and a Republican Congress which led to the shutdown of the government at the end of 1995 and the beginning of 1996.

“Newt decided that if they were going to have a chance to keep their majority for a second straight term he had to cooperate with and work with Clinton and Clinton was delighted to do that and so they basically both ran on their joint accomplishments and it worked,” Ornstein said.

It won’t be that way this year, experts say, contending that the fight has been long brewing and will only get worse as the calendar gets closer to November with members of Congress and President Obama all with dreams of November wins blurring their legislative sight.

“The war between the parties is now a permanent war,” Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution says “With respect to Obama the Republican campaign against him began in January of 2009 and I don’t see 2012 being particularly different.”

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