Web Chat: President Obama and the New Congress

On December 1, Brookings expert Sarah Binder answered your questions about the lame duck session and Obama’s relationship with the new Congressional leaders in a live web chat, moderated by POLITICO senior editor David Mark.

The transcript of this chat follows.

12:30 David Mark: Welcome to the discussion on the lame duck session of Congress and the new session that will convene in January.

12:32 [Comment From Eric: ] What do you foresee the lame duck Congress accomplishing in the next few weeks?

12:34 Sarah Binder: Lame duck Congresses of late have achieved relatively little. Most of their grand ambitions fall by the wayside (in the rush to the holidays). I suspect that the *best* this Congress can do will be to work out a compromise on tax cuts (and assorted tax issues) and to enact another continuing resolution to fund the government into early 2011. But I’m still not convinced that the tax cut package will succeed in this lame duck.

12:34 [Comment From Jennie: ] How would you gauge the success of Tuesday’s meeting?

12:35 Sarah Binder: To the extent that the participants came out with a sense that they *might* be able to work together, that is a good sign. Having said that, Senate GOP today announced that they will procedurally block everything until tax cuts are achieved in the lame duck. That’s hardly a good sign of impending cooperation.

12:35 [Comment From Mark Abbott: ] Do you have any sense of what House R’s are planning to do around 2011 spending bills? We can assume a CR, but we’re interested in whether current spending bills will be redone in the House, ignored, worked in conference, etc.

12:37 Sarah Binder: Because the Senate did not act on a SINGLE appropriations bill thus far this Congress , I’m skeptical that the House’s handiwork (crafted by Dem majorities) will count for much in the 112th Congress. I suspect both chambers will start from scratch, pushed by 90 plus freshmen to attempt big cuts in federal discretionary funding.

12:37 [Comment From Shawn: ] Do you think we will see more cooperation in 2011 between Democrats and Republicans? Or will gridlock continue?

12:39 Sarah Binder: Good question. There’s no necessary connection between divided government and gridlock. We do have historical examples over the past half century or so of productive periods of divided government. Having said that, two other forces are in play besides divided control: The degree of polarization (high! very high!!) and the degree of policy differences between the House and Senate majorities. We’re used to polarization making many policy differences unbridgeable. But it’s been a while since we’ve had such divergent House and Senate majorities. This will greatly complicate the forging of compromise (unless its done by party leaders in summits with the WHite House). I don’t think it will be complete gridlock, but I’m doubtful that much more of the Obama agenda will be achieved.

12:39 [Comment From Merrick: ] Is bipartisanship a pipe dream?

12:41 Sarah Binder: No, not a pipe dream. But both parties would have to find an electoral incentive to agree with each other. When control of the White House and Congress are in play, it’s hard to see the electoral incentives for bipartisan compromise on any of the big issues that separate the parties. But that’s not to say that bipartisanship couldn’t emerge on other issues– trade, agriculture, technology, where there might be fewer partisan divisions on Capitol Hill.

12:41 [Comment From Liana: ] Any thoughts on the Senate’s vote on the food safety bill yesterday? It seems like it was a promising example of compromise between the house and senate.

12:42 Sarah Binder: Absolutely. Having said that, this is an issue that took two years to make it to final passage and had to overcome intense opposition from some Senate opponents. It may be hard electorally to oppose “food safety” even if it expands the reach of federal power.

12:43 [Comment From Jackie: ] Do you think it’s probable that voting on some important pieces of legislation might be pushed to January? That would certainly be to Republicans’ advantage.

12:44 Sarah Binder: I’m still not convinced (though most in DC are) that the two parties will reach a compromise on tax cuts. Much (everything?) will depend on how much Democrats are willing to give up and whether GOP will be willing to accept extension of unemployment benefits to get temporary extension of all tax cuts. I’m not so sure. Why wouldn’t the GOP hold off until January when they could presumably craft a deal more palatable to their majorities?

12:44 [Comment From Kathleen: ] What do you think about the way President Obama has been dealing with Republicans since the midterms, signaling that he may extend the Bush tax cuts temporarily, and ordering the federal government pay freeze, for instance?

12:46 Sarah Binder: The president seems intent on positioning himself at a distance from congressional Democrats. That might work politically for the White House in the short term, but the GOP will want to push him much further than federal employee pay cuts. These strike me as tepid efforts to reach out, when Democrats might be better served by sticking to their populist stand on saving only middle class tax cuts.

12:47 [Comment From Danielle Kurtzleben: ] Do you foresee Obama moving towards the center to make it easier to work with the new Congress?

12:48 Sarah Binder: My guess is that the president will look for opportunities to move to the center to work with the new Congress. That said, there’s no one else left in the center these days (except maybe the senators from Maine), so it’s hard to find Democratic allies to bring along there.

12:48 [Comment From Randy: ] Do you think Speaker Boehner will restore rules and civility to the Leg. making process?

12:50 Sarah Binder: Great question, and tough challenge for a House majority party. Gingrich came in in 1995 pledging a more open and bipartisan place. So did Pelosi. Boehner has too. But the realities of trying to manage the House (and to keep your party rank and file from having to cast politically difficult votes) often encourages new leaders to renege on their procedural promises. House leaders are likely to be as open and civil as they can — so long as they can get their preferred policy choices through the House unchallenged by Democrats. Sometimes that’s a hard challenge, as history shows.

12:50 [Comment From Katherine: ] Do you think that the incoming freshmen are likely to continue to be a voice for change and reduction of spending or will they be coopted fairly quickly?

12:51 Sarah Binder: It took a while for the freshmen of 1994 (and 1974) to be coopted into the old ways of governing. I suspect they’ll be pretty vocal in their efforts to push the leadership to follow through on tough spending cuts.

12:51 [Comment From Dan: ] How will the Debt Commission’s recommendations be used and implemented by President Obama and the incoming GOP House?

12:53 Sarah Binder: Good question. Things aren’t looking so good out of the starting box with the elected members of the commission taking opposite sides by party lines. I suspect that the commission will provide an agenda of spending reductions and tax ideas, but that there will be little appetite on the Hill for adopting them as a piece. The vote coalitions when the commission votes (if it does this Friday) will be important.

12:53 [Comment From Pete: ] What’s the most important thing for the lame duck Congress to accomplish?

12:54 Sarah Binder: Hmm. Good question. Figuring out a solution to the impending tax cuts is economically quite important. Ratifying START would be good too. Confirming SCORES of judicial nominees (and the president’s pick for the Federal Reserve) would be important too.

12:55 [Comment From Troy: ] Do you think President Obama will address partisanship in Congress as a major issue in his 2011 state of the union address?

12:55 Sarah Binder: I’m sure the president will talk about the importance of reaching across party lines.

12:55 [Comment From Mary: ] It sounds like you see most of the compromising coming from the Dems. Why is that?

12:58 Sarah Binder: What’s the incentive for the GOP to compromise in the lame duck? They could have two incentives: 1) Avoid blame for the economic and political fall out if Congress fails to compromise, and 2) avoid the economic shock. I think #2 could induce compromise from the GOP. But how about #1? Who’s likely to be blamed? My hunch is that the White House will bear the blame, fair or not. Add in the GOP’s incentive that they could craft a better deal (possibly) for their party’s perspective in January, and that leads me to think that the Dems would be the ones doing the most compromising. Dems would certainly be taking a huge step by giving up on their position that only middle class tax cuts should be extended.

I could be wrong about likelihood of a compromise. But that’s why this is so fascinating to legislative watchers like myself.

12:58 [Comment From Paul: ] Are you optimistic for the next session of Congress? Why or why not?

1:00 Sarah Binder: The conventional wisdom is that the GOP learned their lesson in 1995. Don’t shut down the government! I’m not so sure that that’s the lesson learned (or that the new GOP freshmen necessarily see it that way.) I’m still concerned that a government shutdown could be in the works, just one that is more strategically crafted. In other words, this time, national parks won’t be shut down. A government shut down, particularly in DC , would be another hurdle for a struggling economy.

1:00 David Mark: Thanks for the chat, folks.