En español | The nation's most pressing problems are in the hands of an unlikely pair — President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner — the nation's top Democrat and Republican, who must decide whether they will move obstinately to separate corners or waltz together in a new bipartisan duet.
The divided government that began in January with a new Republican-controlled House as a counterweight to Obama and the Democratic Senate adds a layer of complexity to such hot-button issues as raising the nation's debt ceiling to prevent a national default, reducing the deficit, boosting the economy, and health care.
Voters are focused. They want politicians to get past their partisan differences and start solving problems.
"This is a very results-oriented electorate," says David Winston, an adviser to Boehner and president of the Winston Group, a public strategy firm. "The electorate is in no mood for hearing political points. This is about results."
To get to those results, both Boehner and Obama must weigh the benefits of compromise against the costs of crossing those in their own parties who want to take a harder line on issues. Obama faces the simultaneous pressures of a reelection campaign and liberals frustrated by unmet expectations. Boehner's headache comes from a gigantic freshman class that includes many Tea Party-backed Republicans elected to fundamentally reduce the role of government.
The first showdown could come as early as next month over raising the limit on how much the country borrows. With its current budget deficit, the federal government must borrow one of every three dollars it spends just to keep operating and has already borrowed more than $14 trillion. It's never happened here before, but if the government defaults or if it cannot continue to borrow, the fallout could be devastating and could linger for years.
Boehner has called on his colleagues to be adults in dealing with the issue. But in return he wants Obama to accept more cuts to stop what he has called the "job-killing spending binge in Washington." To avert a debt crisis, Boehner will need the support of Republican lawmakers, including many who were elected after promising to slash spending to avoid raising the debt limit.
In 1995, the Republican Congress approved severe spending cuts as part of the legislation raising the debt limit, and Democratic President Bill Clinton vetoed the bill, starting a two-month standoff and an on-again, off-again government shutdown. Republicans took a battering in public opinion. Similar factors are in play today, posing a challenge for Boehner.
"How do you show the hard-liners you are OK as speaker, yet behave as a responsible legislator?" says Bruce Oppenheimer, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. "That's where real political skills come in. The real question is, is he up to it?"
Former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert says he is. He doubts Boehner will push the government into a shutdown. "He's been there before, and it didn't work out well," says Hastert, now a senior adviser at the law firm Dickstein Shapiro.
What about domestic spending and jobs? >>
Obama and Republicans already agree that domestic spending levels must be cut. Obama's budget proposed a five-year freeze on discretionary programs (which don't include Social Security and Medicare), part of a 10-year plan to reduce the deficit by $1.1 trillion.
Republican leaders want more: Cut spending back to 2008 levels. But it's not easy. With a $100 billion target, Republican appropriators struggled to get to $61 billion. The conflict will intensify as lawmakers debate Obama's new $3.7 trillion budget proposal. Already, conservatives in the Republican Study Committee have proposed $2.5 trillion in cuts over 10 years. Targets include Amtrak, housing programs, beach replenishment, health care, legal services to the poor, and weatherization grants.
Hastert knows enacting cuts is especially hard. The $150 billion in spending cuts the House passed when he was speaker was whittled to $40 billion by the time the legislation was adopted by the Senate and became law.
One immediate concern is this year's planned $250 million cut in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, says John Rother, AARP executive vice president. Further, he said, the freeze proposed by the president affects programs that benefit older Americans. "As the older population grows, that funding — which is already pretty slim — is going to be stretched even more," he says, adding that the freeze would hit Meals on Wheels, senior center funding and some health care programs.
Jobs and the economy
Polls show that jobs and the economy top the public agenda. Obama will get the credit — or the blame — for how the economy is doing when Election Day 2012 rolls around, says Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center. If the economy begins to grow again — as it did for Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, helping propel them back into office — it will reduce the deficit and create jobs.
"A strong economy makes a lot of these problems less serious," Doherty says. The challenge for Obama is that many of the young and independent voters who were crucial to his 2008 victory are among the most impatient with the sluggish economy.
Voters are skeptical of Obama's health care reform >>
Many voters are skeptical of Obama's health care reform, which Republicans derisively call "Obamacare." House Republicans already voted to repeal it, though the Senate refused to go along. Meanwhile, Republicans hope courts will upend the law or dismantle it piecemeal. Rutgers University political science professor Ross Baker expects Republicans to hold countless hearings and limit spending needed to implement the law. "I think they are hoping they can administer a death of a thousand cuts to health insurance reform," he says.
Winston says Boehner's approach will be to give wide discretion to House committees. Republicans there may pass malpractice reform, allow people to purchase health insurance across state lines and help small businesses with buying health insurance.
"Most Americans would want a government that can cooperate to solve problems," Rother says. "But you do have a very basic difference of opinion on how to solve those problems." Boehner adviser Winston doesn't downplay the difficulty of managing the factions of the Republican Party. "You're managing a majority coalition, and that's just really hard."
But he agrees with Hastert that the performance of a divided government under President Clinton and a Republican Congress is proof that major compromises can be reached. During that era, the economy grew, unemployment went down, the budget was balanced and the welfare system was reformed. "This is a different formula on Capitol Hill," Hastert says. "If [Obama] wants to get anything done, he has to work within that formula."
Whether that sort of success can be replicated will be largely a function of whether Obama and Boehner can dance to the same tune.
Tamara Lytle is a former Washington bureau chief for the Orlando Sentinel.
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