Congress needed just one month to preview Washington’s next two years. The federal spending bill completed in December showed how fractious Obama’s relations with Congress will be for the remainder of his presidency. This fractured nature goes beyond partisan politics, and into ideological divides as well.
The recent legislation to fund the government showed the fault lines now arcing through Washington following November’s midterm elections. Despite such legislation’s routine nature, and with the president and leaders of both parties supporting it, passage proved a struggle.
In the House, where partisan passions are more exposed, the bill narrowly passed 219-206. Despite their majority, Republicans could not manage it on their own, as 67 of their members voted against it. Despite their president’s support, Democrats could muster just over one third of their members for it.
Although less volatile, the Senate labored too, passing the bill 56-40 (four members not voting). Despite holding 55 seats, Democrats alone could not pass the legislation, as about 40 percent of their members voted against it. Republicans also lost about the same percentage of their members.
Both parties in both bodies split to great degrees. And they split for different reasons. Liberal Democrats were exercised by the inclusion of a provision they saw as rolling back the Dodd-Frank Act. Conservative Republicans were upset over the failure to address Obama’s unilateral immigration moves.
There is much to glean for the future from just a single vote in a Congress now history.
For one thing, passing legislation will no longer mean simply assembling members from a single party. For another, a “no vote” just got much easier to construct. While passing legislation now requires getting members from across the partisan divide and across ideological ones to agree to a common proposal, voting down legislation requires no common goal or even ideology – merely a momentary coalescing of disparate and disgruntled members.
Because the fissures are now ideological as well as partisan, the White House must now choose sides in these fights. It had to do this in the recent fight, siding with its party’s more conservative members to pass the spending legislation. When the fights were largely partisan ones, the administration’s position was easy: side with their own party — which in the Senate was also the majority and could thereby stop legislation from passing Congress.
Now with battles having an ideological component on the Democrat side — as well as on the Republican — the White House must choose. And the administration’s choice will have real consequences, since passage of legislation now primarily depends on Republicans.
The root of all these changes was November’s midterm election. While the election’s partisan results have been easy to grasp, at least equally importance has been its ideological outcome. Both parties saw their extreme wings strengthened.
For Republicans, the reasons are straightforward. Obama’s strong unpopularity propelled them to another huge midterm victory. With their congressional numbers at levels unseen in decades, there was nothing in November’s outcome suggesting compromise with Obama or those who support him.
Ironically, congressional Democrats got largely the same message from November. Even for Democrats, distance from Obama is electorally positive; however, they are taking it by moving in the opposite direction. While Republicans see their reward in moving away to the right from Obama, Democrats increasingly perceive their advantage in moving away to the left from him.
The losses Democrats sustained in November came largely in red districts and states. With more conservative members gone, their congressional party becomes more liberal. With their Senate majority gone, their responsibility goes too — particularly in helping the administration govern. Thus they have a greater incentive to move left, a membership more comprised to do so, and, in the Senate at least, without the majority’s responsibility, which formerly stopped them from doing so.
It is clear from December’s spending fight that the new Congress’s battles will be worse and more frequent. Fissures beget fissures. When sticking together, members must coalesce around a single point. When the inclination to cohesion disappears, they find multiple positions to move to.
The political calendar will also provide opportunities. With Obama’s unpopularity increasing — and likely to increase further as his lame duck status increases — both parties will look to differentiate themselves from him. With the ideological cleavages within the parties increased, both parties will find members separating from Obama in several directions.
Opportunities for polarization will be far more plentiful than bipartisan ones. When these fights come, they also will be far more real than rhetorical. With the Senate now Republican, the obstacle to putting partisan differences into legislation is gone. The fights will now be between two branches of government, not simply between two parties.
It is not as though Washington has not had enough pitched battles in the past few years. The bullets fired during those have been real enough, and we have seen the damage they can do. Now the factions will have more bullets, as well as bigger guns with which to fire them.