Four days after the budget cuts known as sequester have begun, the president may have shifted his priorities toward helping Democrats retake the House of Representatives in 2014 rather than negotiating a compromise with congressional Republicans.
The United States has been bouncing from one fiscal crisis to another since the 2011 debt ceiling negotiation. Republicans charge that this is a result of Obama’s focus on gaining “complete control of Washington” instead of the problems facing middle-class families.
“That’s why the sequester went into effect in its current form,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor on Tuesday. “That’s why Washington continues to careen needlessly from crisis to crisis. And that’s why we find ourselves in a situation where more than 1,400 days have passed since Senate Democrats last passed a budget. What a sad state of affairs for our country, and for the notion of governance in general.”
The Washington Post reported over the weekend that amidst the $85 billion in automatic, across-the-board spending cuts in 2013, known on Capitol Hill as sequester, Obama’s domestic agenda appears to have gotten a little heavier as he is now working to get a Democratic-controlled Congress back on the Hill in two years.
Congress had nearly two years in which to agree on an alternative to the 2013 portion of spending cuts to defense and domestic programs. Obama signed a sequestration order on March 1 to have the cuts implemented. Under sequestration, the reduction in the spending budget for these programs will result in a total of $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years if an act of Congress doesn’t forgo it.
A compromise between Democrats and Republicans may not happen any time soon. The bickering among lawmakers in Congress almost drove the nation over the "fiscal cliff" in December when talks completely broke down – House Speaker John Boehner walked away from the negotiation table to pursue a fiscal cliff plan that his party rejected.
At the eleventh hour, Vice President Joe Biden and McConnell brokered a deal that led to the first income tax increase in nearly 20 years and delayed the sequester until last Friday. There was indeed a negotiation between the two sides on an agreement to offset sequestration. And when Obama did call for a talk, it was on the day the law was to take effect with just hours to spare.
That meeting didn’t bear fruit and Republicans promised no last-minute, backdoor deal this time around.
The day after the spending cuts took effect, Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told the Post that “The president understands that to get anything done, he needs a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. To have a legacy in 2016, he will need a House majority in 2014, and that work has to start now.”
Plans to take back the House began the night Obama won re-election, according to the Post.
The first calls Obama made after his victory speech were to Israel and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, who is a former House speaker.
Democrats had complained that Obama had forgotten them because he did do enough in his first term to help them.
But Israel told the Washington paper that during the November call Obama expressed “how focused he would be on winning a House majority for the Democrats.”
On CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Israel was asked about the Post’s article, to which he replied, “House Democrats have consistently supported compromise. … Last Thursday the Republican speaker of the House, John Boehner, spoke to the Republican Caucus and said there will be no more negotiations, no more talks; not one corporate tax loophole will be considered as part of a sequester. And the Republican Caucus cheered. Since when do we begin cheering for failure? Since when did we cheer against compromise?
“The fact of the matter is the speaker said we will not negotiate and there was cheering,” he continued. “What the president needs is more conversation about compromise and less cheering for the lack of compromise.”
Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Monday that the 2014 midterms isn’t a focus for the President right now. He reiterated the administration is still working on issues the public cares about: creating jobs, growing the economy, reforming immigration, and reducing gun violence.
“It is just not accurate that the President doesn’t want these accomplishments,” Carney said. “He is expending great political capital and energy on the proposition that he wants immigration reform done in a bipartisan way and done early.”
But those on the other side aren’t buying it.
“I think it’s clear what’s happening,” said Daniel Scarpinato, national press secretary at the National Republican Congressional Committee. “The president came out of November with the goal of launching a never-ending campaign. It’s creating a backlash – his preoccupation with winning the House for Nancy Pelosi – and people are tired of the never-ending campaign.
“The White House is clearly freaking out over these news reports,” he added. “They were pretty clear that the president was going to make winning the House a priority. I think that folks would rather the President of the United States focus on the present job of helping the country rather than campaign and campaigning on the taxpayers’ dime.”
A Democratic-controlled House like the one Obama enjoyed in the first two years of his presidency would eliminate the opposition Republicans have mounted since his taking office.
But to win big in 2014 seems like an uphill task in itself. House Democrats will need to rack up 17 seats to take the lead. In recent history, only one president, Bill Clinton, managed to gain congressional seats in his second midterm, and that wasn’t enough to retake the House majority.
And don’t forget the Senate. 21 of the 35 seats up for election in 2014 are held by Democrats and many of the states that will vote are leaning right.
According to New York Times stats guru Nate Silver, seven of the 21 Democratic-held seats are in states that supported Mitt Romney, the Republican 2012 presidential nominee.
To contact the editor, e-mail: