J. Scott Applewhite / AP
In this Jan. 4, 2013, photo, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, walks to a strategy session with GOP members, on Capitol Hill in Washington at the start of the first full day of business for the new 113th Congress.
Throughout the 2012 presidential campaign, President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress confidently predicted that the re-election of the president would break the partisan “fever” they claimed had enveloped Washington and the Republican Party.
But the weeks since the election have found Republicans as dogged as ever in their resistance to Obama, whose initiatives – including gun control, immigration reform and efforts to boost renewable energy – still face an uncertain path forward, particularly in an unruly House of Representatives still controlled by a Republican majority. Republicans are signaling a willingness to go to great lengths to bend coming battles in their favor, especially versus a White House whom they view as just as unflinching in its views, if not more so.
“I believe if we're successful – when we’re successful in this election – the fever may break. My hope and my expectation is that after the election, now that it turns out the goal of beating Obama doesn’t make much sense because I’m not running again,” Obama said at an event on June 1. “We can start getting some cooperation again, and we’re not going to have people raising their hands and saying – or refusing to accept a deal where there’s $10 of cuts for every dollar of tax increases, but that people will accept a balanced plan for deficit reduction.”
That was an expectation the Obama administration carried all the way through the campaign; Vice President Joe Biden said on MSNBC just days before Election Day: “I think you’re going to see the fever break.”
President Obama nominated Chuck Hagel to defense secretary on Monday, January 7, 2013. The Morning Joe panel -- including the Council on Foreign Relations' Richard Haass and Dan Senor -- discusses why several top GOP lawmakers are having a tough time with the president's nomination.
But the just-finished fight over the fiscal cliff suggested that, if anything, Republicans are more entrenched than ever before. While Obama ultimately won the income tax rate increases on the wealthy, on which the president campaigned, it wasn’t until Republicans had exhausted every feasible move that they relented to Obama’s demand. And even then, it wasn’t until the U.S. had gone over the fiscal cliff – if only for a matter of hours – that Congress agreed to act, passing the bill in the House with mostly Democratic votes.
Debt limit a 'point of leverage'
But Obama might be mistaken to assume his toughest fights with congressional Republicans are behind him. While Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s vow to make Obama a one-term president is now moot, Republicans appear as emboldened as ever to both battle with the administration and keep true to their the ideological conservatism that a large number in the party represent.
The temporary fiscal cliff deal sets up a series of potentially more contentious battles this spring over continuing government funding and authorizing more borrowing authority for the government. And top Republicans are now openly discussing options, like a government shutdown, that they had taken every pain to disavow in 2011.
"It may be necessary to partially shut down the government in order to secure the long-term fiscal well being of our country," Texas Sen. John Cornyn, Republicans' No. 2 in the Senate, wrote last week in the Houston Chronicle. "President Obama needs to take note of this reality and put forward a plan to avoid it immediately."
The government will reach its debt limit next month, and unless Congress raises the debt ceiling, the U.S. will default on 40 percent of its obligations. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., explains what will happen to the economy, if the U.S. defaults.
And House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called the debt limit fight "one point of leverage" in an interview with the Wall Street Journal; a Politico report, also published Monday, suggested the House speaker was more circumspect about the possibility of defaulting on the national debt. In 2011, Boehner stressed at every turn that defaulting on the U.S. debt was not an option.
Senate Republicans’ budget chief was more explicit: “I think it should be a firm principle that we should not raise the debt ceiling until we have a plan on how the new borrowed money will be spent,” Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions told the Washington Examiner on Tuesday.
If Obama was hoping there were more deals to be had on taxes, too, Republicans all but tried to slam the door on such an idea.
“We’ve resolved the tax issue now. It’s over. It’s behind us,” McConnell said Sunday on “Meet the Press.”
Fight over defense secretary
And those are only the spending fights; other clashes are already taking shape.
Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., whom Obama nominated to be the next secretary of defense, appears likely to face strong Republican resistance in the Senate.
Obama has also suggested that he’s willing to dive headlong – and quickly – into battles over comprehensive immigration reform and gun control, fights which could only threaten to intensify hostilities between the White House and congressional Republicans (and put some moderate Democrats in a tough spot politically in the meanwhile).
The president’s second-term initiatives could fall victim to the same fever that killed the DREAM Act, cap-and-trade legislation, the Employee Free Choice Act and the “public option” in health care reform during his first term.
“There will be plenty of time to take a look at their recommendations once they come forward,” McConnell said Sunday of Obama’s hope for quick action on curbing gun violence. “What’s going to dominate Washington for the next three months here is going to be spending and debt.”