Congressman Joseph Cao (R-Louisiana) is thinking of voting for President Obama’s budget. Cao’s win was a surprise to the non-Hillyers of the world and his reelection will be a tough slog. No Republican in the House represents a more Democratic district. Barack Obama won there with 74 percent of the vote. It’s perfectly understandable that he’d be feeling pressure to side with the president against the Republican leadership on some issues. But this shows how different the dynamics of the Obama budget debate are from the Clinton budget debate sixteen years ago.
In 1993, the Democrats controlled the Senate by 57 to 43 and the House by 258 to 176. The one independent congressman was the socialist Bernie Sanders, who caucused with the Democrats. That roughly compares with the Democrats’ current majorities of 58 to 41 in the Senate (counting the two independents who caucus with Democrats) and 254 to 178 in the House.
Yet when Bill Clinton unveiled his first budget, complete with a tax increase, it only passed each chamber by one vote. Were it not for Al Gore’s tie-breaking vote in the Senate and Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky’s decisive vote in the House, the budget would not have passed. And key portions of the original Clinton economic plan, ranging from a stimulus package that was but a fraction of the Obama plan’s cost and a BTU-based energy tax, never stood a chance. The Democrats did lose one Senate seat before the budget debate was over — Lloyd Bentsen’s interim replacement, Bob Krueger, was beaten by Kay Bailey Hutchison in a special election in Texas — but Krueger wasn’t on board with the Clinton tax increase in any event.
Bob Dole was able to hold together a group of Republicans that would make Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe feel at home: Jim Jeffords, John Chafee, David Durenberger, Mark Hatfield, William Cohen, Bob Packwood, and, of course, Arlen Specter. But more importantly, Democrats in competitive states and districts were afraid to vote for the Clinton budget. So the Democratic leadership not only lost of the votes of relative conservatives like Sam Nunn, David Boren, and Dennis DeConcini — senators like Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin were no votes too.
These Democrats feared a vote for the Clinton tax-and-budget package for good reason: Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky was booted out of office after only a single term in large part because she voted with Clinton to raise taxes. There are a lot more Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinskies — Democrats representing districts with underlying Republican sympathies — than Joseph Caos in the current Congress. But right now, Democrats don’t seem all that worried about voting with their president. They might become even less worried if the Republicans can’t win the NY-20 special election today. There’s been a lot of grassroots conservative activism against Obama’s budget but nothing like the anti-Clinton anger in conservative parts of the country yet.
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