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Top 10 Issues at Stake in the Midterm Elections

4 years ago
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Though it doesn't seem like it amid the hail of attacks, counterattacks and fuzzy closing ads featuring candidate families, there's a lot more to the midterm elections than politics. This is a battle about the role of the government, the U.S. place in the world and the best way forward. Hanging in the balance are how we proceed on jobs, energy and education, a bulging deficit, the new health law, Social Security, a nuclear arms treaty and much more.

The most likely election result is a Republican-controlled House, and a narrowly Democratic Senate with comfortably more than the 40 Republicans needed to mount a filibuster. Even if Democrats manage to hold the House, they will have a greatly reduced majority. Some of the incoming GOP lawmakers will be Tea Party victors whose battle cry was no compromise, no surrender. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said his top goal is to make President Barack Obama a one-term president.

McConnell told National Journal this month that "it's not inappropriate for us to do business" with Obama from time to time. His conditions, laid out over the past few months, include Obama doing "a Clintonian back flip," becoming a "born-again moderate," and accepting "center-right" positions. If Obama wants to pursue international trade agreements and build nuclear power plants, he says, Republicans will be on board.

Beyond that, McConnell and his party have made clear they want to reverse or undermine major Democratic achievements of the last two years, stop all future Democratic initiatives, and put their own very different ideas into practice. Their backbones will be stiffened by a cadre of Tea Party activists and potential primary challengers looking over their shoulders.

So what does that mean for the country? Here are the top 10 issues at stake, and their prospects:

1. Taxes. The first test of the new post-election order will be Bush-era tax cuts that are expiring at the end of the year. Congress is planning to deal with tax rates in a lame-duck session in November. Both parties want to extend the lower rates for household income under $250,000 (under $200,000 for single filers). Republicans want to extend the lower rates for income above those levels as well, a step the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates would increase the federal deficit by $700 billion over 10 years.

Democrats will still control both chambers in the lame-duck session. But if they fare badly on Tuesday, they are unlikely to insist on letting the lower rates for the wealthy expire. A possible compromise would be a two-year extension.

2. The deficit. Another skirmish is bound to erupt on or around Dec. 1, when recommendations are due from the president's bipartisan deficit reduction commission. Obama has said deficit reduction will be a priority in 2011. Republicans have campaigned on pledges to dramatically cut spending, but haven't offered many details. The only specific plan out there – proposals by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to privatize Social Security, turn Medicare into a voucher system and the like – is anathema to Democrats. Obama recently declared the idea of privatizing Social Security a "non-starter."

For their part, Republicans have shown no sign they would accept a mix of tax increases and spending cuts, as Democrats demand. And politically, would they want to give Obama bragging rights as a fiscal conservative in his 2012 re-election race? Small steps seem the most likely upshot.

3. Social Security. There is some chance of a bipartisan compromise on Social Security. The commission could suggest such options as reducing benefits for affluent retirees and gradually raising the retirement age, possibly with accommodations for people in physically demanding jobs. Any proposal that wins support from 14 of the 18 commission members will come up for a vote in Congress.

4. Jobs. Obama has proposed a $50 billion investment in roads, rail and runways as a way to create jobs and lay the groundwork for future economic growth. He also wants to make a research and development tax credit permanent, let companies immediately deduct the cost of capital investments, and provide spurs for investment in such innovative sectors as clean energy. Even some Democrats deserted Obama on the infrastructure proposal, given the nation's anti-spending mood. Republicans generally support the R&D and capital investment proposals but blocked them before the election. There's a chance they'll come back on board when it's over.

5. Health care. Expect fireworks early and often as Republicans make good on their oft-repeated pledge to try to repeal the new health law. Given Obama's veto pen and the likelihood of a Democratic Senate, some of them acknowledge they won't get far. They may also find those pledges less popular than they seemed on the campaign trail.

Health law provisions are being phased in over time, and many are appealing – patient protections, free preventive tests and care, and so forth. One outgoing Republican senator -- deficit hawk Judd Gregg of New Hampshire -- has said the law's $500 billion in Medicare savings and cuts over 10 years "actually made some sense" and should not be repealed.

In addition, public attitudes are not clear-cut. An October poll of 1,073 registered voters by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 55 percent either had a favorable view of the new law or did not but thought it should be given a chance to work. A recent New York Times-CBS News poll found 45 percent in favor of keeping the law and 41 percent who wanted it gone.

A more successful path for House Republicans will be to try to de-finance specific parts of the law. There is no guarantee the Senate would go along and Obama would certainly be inclined to veto that sort of thing, but such provisions could be tucked into must-pass bills that would be hard for Democrats and Obama to block.

6. Financial regulation. Passage of the law tightening regulation of Wall Street is another signature Obama achievement that Republicans have vowed to repeal. The overhaul was designed to prevent another 2008-style collapse. There are multiple reasons Republicans probably won't succeed, including Obama's veto pen and broad support for the law.

De-financing may not work that well, either. One major GOP target, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is writing rules to make credit card, mortgage and other transactions simpler and more transparent. Banks say the bureau is intrusive and Republicans say it is a huge new government bureaucracy. But its money comes through the self-financed Federal Reserve, so Congress can't cut it off.

7. Afghanistan. Clashes are inevitable with the approach of July and Obama's stated intention to start drawing down U.S. troops in Afghanistan at that point. Most Republicans have been highly critical of that deadline and are likely to challenge whether conditions are right for us to start reducing our presence. The country is turning increasingly against the war, now in its 10th year.

8. Energy and global warming. The energy and climate bill that stalled in the Senate was the highest profile legislative failure in Obama's first two years. He and other Democrats saw the measure as an all-around win that would create jobs, reduce carbon emissions, reduce dependence on foreign oil and improve national security.

But the sharp partisan debate around what Republicans tarred as a consumer-unfriendly "cap-and-tax" system has killed for now, if not forever, the prospect of a law that puts an overall cap on carbon pollution and allows companies to buy and sell pollution permits. Furthermore, many of the conservative Republicans expected on Capitol Hill next year do not believe there is evidence of global warming or, if there is, that human activity contributes to it.

Melody Barnes, the White House domestic policy director, said comprehensive legislation would create a framework for the future and send a strong message to investors, businesses and the rest of the world about where the country is headed. "That would be important and that would be a priority," she said recently at the Atlantic Green Intelligence Forum. But she also said: "There are many concerns about moving this kind of legislation forward from those who oppose it. And also I think the country taking in and absorbing big pieces of legislation that we've already passed, like the health care bill – that will affect the environment and how we proceed forward on energy legislation."

Some potential opportunities for legislative progress do exist. There is bipartisan support, for instance, for bills promoting energy efficiency in buildings, the use of natural gas and the development of electric cars. In addition, energy experts say they expect states to continue promoting the renewable energy industry and increased use of such energy regardless of whether Congress passes a national standard. All of that would have the effect of reducing carbon emissions.

The Obama administration also has executive tools at its disposal. Obama has issued executive orders to reduce carbon pollution from federal vehicles, buildings and employee travel. And the Environmental Protection Agency under Obama is phasing in regulations to curb carbon emissions from large industrial sources, including power plants. Republicans may challenge EPA authority, but the Supreme Court has pretty much settled that issue.

9. START Treaty. The goal of ousting Obama could thwart movement even on issues where there is common ground, or has been in the past. One of those would be a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that Obama agreed to with Russia. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) said recently that some opponents falsely contend the treaty would inhibit U.S. missile defense and some are "of a conspiratorial frame of mind" about it. Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, he predicted that incoming Republicans will say that "we want more time" to study the treaty. That point, in fact, is already being raised.

10. Education. Obama's K-12 education policies have drawn support from many in both parties. His Race to the Top grant competition incorporates ideas that appeal to Republicans, like charter schools and teacher performance. Lawmakers have been holding bipartisan discussions about revising and reauthorizing the country's major elementary and secondary education law, also known as No Child Left Behind. Will those discussions resume, and will they be different? Moderate Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware was the leading House Republican working on the new bill. But he was defeated in a Senate primary and won't be back. Several Republican candidates who appear headed for victory, meanwhile, have said they want to abolish the Education Department entirely.

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