Profs look for more compromises in Congress

Championing a new bipartisan approach, President Barack Obama and the lame-duck 111th Congress enjoyed a prolific December, though questions remain as to how long this productive spirit can last.

A harsh political reality dictated a new approach for the president and his party after losing the House and their super-majority in the Senate. Their subsequent path was one of compromise, preferring passable bills with numerous concessions. Although Obama alienated some Democrats, others found the results impressive—the extension of the Bush tax cuts, the New Start Treaty, the 9/11 health bill, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal and new federal funding measures were all bills passed more peacefully than would have been expected after the “shellacking” Obama called the midterms.

“[Obama] has always shown a proclivity to compromise, but now it’s a necessity. You will see him try to incorporate and preempt Republican ideas that still fit into his own progressive frame,” said Pope McCorkle, a visiting associate professor of practice at the Sanford School of Public Policy and a former Democratic analyst. Although, McCorkle added, he will have to “widen his frame and make some compromises concerning himself.”

The concessions included an extension Bush tax cuts for all incomes and a decreased estate tax, which lapsed for 2010 but is back with an exemption of $1 million per person and a maximum rate of 55 percent. Many Democrats in the House were outraged by the concessions and Obama’s hand in shaping them behind closed doors. But ultimately Republican consent to the administration’s demands for a 13-month extension of benefits for the long-term unemployed and both parties’ unwillingness to allow the full spectrum of Bush-era tax cuts to expire at the end of the month proved strong incentives for compromise in the House. The deal, however, only adds to the national debt and leaves the question of how to eventually decrease it unanswered.

Although Obama made several compromises, he was unwilling to compromise over the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and the New Start Treaty, which continued U.S.-Russian arms reduction efforts.

Refusing to back down and suffer what aides called a “huge loss,” Obama decided to take a gamble and demand that the Senate approve the treaty by the end of the year. The result was the largest battle over arms control in a decade in Washington as Obama worked with Nobel Peace Prize winner Henry Kissinger, who served as secretary of state in the Nixon and Ford administrations, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to pass the treaty that would cut both arsenals by 30 percent and require both nations to resume on-site inspections.

“It’s in [the United States’] best interest to ensure that the weapons that are under Russian control do not become loose and end up in other places,” said Ole Holsti, George V. Allen professor emeritus of political science.

Holsti dismissed opinions of Republicans in the Senate who were hesitant to support a treaty they believed could leave the nation vulnerable, explaining that the incredible destructive power of modern nuclear warheads renders the decrease a harmless change, especially with Russia following suit. The main goal of the treaty, however, is to further talks with Russia about curtailing smaller nuclear weapons which can “much more easily end up in the wrong hands,” Holsti said.

Looking to the incoming 112th Congress, McCorkle said he expects “very interesting” political dynamics. Among them is the Tea Party variable and how it will play into the budget and unemployment plans.

“The support for the Tea Party beyond the hard-core was an oppositional base against the Obama administration on taxes and big government,” he said. “How do you go from an antigovernment force to a positive force?”


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