By MARSHA MERCER
Trying to put unlucky 2013 behind him, President Barack Obama was upbeat about the New Year.
“I firmly believe that 2014 can be a breakthrough year for America,” he said Dec. 20 at a White House news conference before heading to Hawaii for vacation.
“It’s probably too early to declare an outbreak of bipartisanship,” the president conceded, “But it’s also fair to say we’re not condemned to endless gridlock.”
OK, it’s the holiday season, so let’s be charitable. It’s possible that 2014 will be more productive than 2013 in the nation’s capital. But don’t bet your new MacBook Air on Democrats and Republicans suddenly discovering they have a lot in common.
Everything you need to know about 2014 in Washington can be summarized in two words: midterm elections.
Obama and members of Congress are battling for their survival. Everything they say – and they will say far more than they will do -- will be focused on winning middle-class votes. The technical term is pandering, and both parties are masters of the craft.
The stakes are large. If Obama’s approval rating doesn’t rebound from the miserable 42 percent he hit in the latest CBS News poll, he’ll be an albatross for Democratic candidates running for the House and Senate next November. And if Republicans don’t stop playing fiscal brinksmanship games without offering alternatives, they risk writing their own political obituaries.
Some things won’t change when the ball drops at Times Square. Health care and the economy will dominate politics. Republicans will keep describing Obamacare as a train wreck and the economy as an abject failure. Democrats hope voters won’t listen once people start getting insurance coverage and the economy continues to grow. Yes, those are big ifs.
Republicans in the Senate and House are convinced that public disapproval of the Affordable Care Act will translate into GOP votes. That means more hostile hearings presided over by House Republicans and more horror tales from Senate Republicans, although we may be spared another attempt to defund the law, given the political hits the GOP took from forcing a government shutdown last fall in a futile attempt to stop the law.
The bipartisan budget agreement this month showed that compromise is possible on Capitol Hill. An early test of whether bipartisanship will last will come over the debt ceiling. The Treasury Department says the amount the government can borrow must be increased by early March so we can continue paying our bills.
Conservative Republicans will demand budget concessions; Obama has reiterated his refusal to negotiate. Such a standoff also led to the shutdown.
But 2014 has the added intrigue of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s tough re-election fight in Kentucky. With only a 31 percent approval rating in his state, McConnell is the least popular senator in the land. In Kentucky, though, 31 percent was also Obama’s approval rating, which doesn’t help Democrats.
If McConnell beats tea party challenger Matt Bevin in the Republican primary, he still has a formidable general election competitor in Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky secretary of state.
For their part, Democrats on Capitol Hill will focus on working families and income inequality. A priority is raising the minimum wage. Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who’s retiring, has proposed an increase from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, which Obama supports.
Republicans counter that a higher minimum wage will mean that employers hire fewer workers. Both sides see the minimum wage as a potent campaign issue.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says the first order of business in January will be extending long-term unemployment benefits, which Congress allowed to expire this month. House Speaker John Boehner may go along with the extension, if spending cuts are part of the package.
Progressive Democrats, including Harkin and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, are defying conventional wisdom that curbing entitlements must be part of any long-term fiscal plan. They say Social Security benefits need to be raised, not cut.
Critics say it’s irresponsible to suggest raising benefits, which would require higher payroll taxes, and nobody, but nobody, expects anything to happen. But it does make a dandy campaign promise.
So much pandering ahead in 2014, and we haven’t even touched on 2016. Happy New Year!
© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.