Canberra Times

By Lesley Russell

The morning after election day, the sun came up in Washington, DC, just like any other day. The reality is that the 2010 midterm elections have not delivered a brand new political world. President Barack Obama is the third consecutive president to have the Congress change during his term and in 28 of the past 40 years, at least one house of the Congress has been led by a different party than that of the president.

Under such circumstances there are just two courses of political action available to lawmakers: compromise or gridlock.

At this point, early in the process, the latter seems inevitable. The Republicans of the 112th Congress will be more right-wing, and the Democrats will be more left-leaning, and this will keep the Grand Old Party leadership and the White House squared off rather than squarely facing the issues together.

There is now the added factor of the Tea Party candidates, who must learn how to go through a transition from a protest movement to government. The Tea Partiers have no agreed policy agenda, a distaste for the inevitable compromises of legislating, and a wary relationship with the Republican leaders.

Getting any legislation through the next Congress will be an uphill battle at best.

The chances of getting legislation to address the two key issues the budget deficit and jobs are virtually zero.

As first orders of business in 2011, Republicans have pledged to slash taxes and spending, cut down on government regulations, repeal portions of Obama's healthcare law and end his stimulus program. "There's nothing more urgent than stopping the tax hikes, cutting spending and repealing Obama-care," a spokesman for House Republican leader John Boehner said before the elections.

That list doesn't seem to include jobs. And where will those spending cuts (purportedly the GOP wants to slash $US100 billion right away) come from? The deficit will be hit further as a consequence of the repeal of healthcare reforms and continued tax cuts for the rich.

The hard evidence that extending the Bush tax cuts will create a significant number of jobs is sadly lacking.

This agenda is on a direct collision course with that of the Democrats, who want to tackle the creation of manufacturing jobs using the "Make it in America" agenda that ends outsourcing, address deficit reduction, and then move on to immigration and energy reforms.

The gridlock will begin early, in the lame-duck session, when the parties will try to reach agreement over extending (and paying for) the Bush tax cuts that are due to expire on December 31.

Senate leader Mitch McConnell has publicly said that he was fretting over how to control expectations among Tea Party members, who will demand that bigger GOP numbers in Congress produce action, without acknowledging how this will be achieved. For example, they want a massive U-turn on federal spending but refuse to tackle the most costly areas of the budget, including social security and Medicare.

The Tea Party members will face their first test as legislators quickly, and it's not clear how they will respond. The current Congress did not act on the budget appropriations bills and the continuing resolution that keeps the federal government money flowing only extends until December 3.

The lame-duck session could kick that forward into early 2011, but this will force Congress back into spending debates immediately next year. This debate will encompass all fiscal year 2011 discretionary spending, all of Obama's proposed fiscal year 2012 budget, and be a prelude to the federal debt limit debate next northern spring. Ultimately the debt limit is the centre of the fiscal battlefield. The current amount of debt, US$13.5 trillion, is rising toward the US$14.3 trillion ceiling passed in January 2010. The limit is expected to be reached in mid-2011.

Failure to enact legislation to increase the debt ceiling could tip the United States into bankruptcy, with international impacts. A filibuster from just one senator and Rand Paul looks set to take this on could cause this to happen. This could easily lead to a government shutdown as in 1995. The Republicans are salivating at this, ignoring the cost and the impact on federal workers.

The other important area for negotiation is with the White House, and after two years of using the 60-vote filibuster to stall the Obama agenda, Senate Republicans must now look to 67 votes the number needed to override a presidential veto.

While some pundits point to the fact that Bill Clinton had to deal with the Republicans for the last six years of his presidency, and he got quite a deal accomplished, times are different.

McConnell said recently, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."

Dr Lesley Russell is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for American Progress in Washington, DC. She is a Research Associate at both the Menzies Centre for Health Policy and the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.