Politics

It's All Over But the Shouting

So now what?

Congress finally passed health care reform in late March before finally abandoning Washington for two weeks. Lawmakers return this week. And no one quite knows what they’re going to do between now and the end of the year.

“I’m not really sure,” responded one senior staffer when I asked what was on tap when Congress returned to session.

“Are you kidding me?” said another. “I still haven’t recovered from health care.”

“I’m golfing,” replied another.

It may be April. But in Congress, the calendar may as well read December. Because almost anything of consequence for the 111th Congress is in the books.

Senators are still smarting from the bruising health care fight. So it’s doubtful that the Senate has the energy, let alone the votes, to tackle the controversial climate bill that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) muscled through her chamber nearly a year ago. However, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) plans to push through a big financial regulatory bill. The Obama Administration deems Dodd’s legislation as its next big ticket item.

That’s about it for legislation.

The one big challenge is the confirmation process for the next Supreme Court justice. John Paul Stevens announced his retirement late last week. Stevens departure gives President Obama his second appointment opportunity to the High Court in as many years. For instance, President Carter never even got the chance to make a mark on the Supreme Court.

Expect Mr. Obama’s appointment to become a lightning rod for conservatives heading into the midterm elections. Especially if the president nominates someone the right views as too liberal. The confirmation hearings present conservatives with an opportunity to contrast themselves with the president and Congressional Democrats. So expect lots of fireworks.

But the confirmation process is exclusively the province of the Senate. So over in the House, what to do?

Yep, after months of hand-to-hand legislative combat, the House could be a rather serene place. The House is now stocked with the equivalent of teenagers who moan to mom that they’re bored. Or that there’s nothing good on TV. Or hectoring parents from the backseat of the minivan on a family road trip “Are we there yet Dad?

In the House, it’s all over but the shouting.

And we’ll have plenty of that between now and November.

With the midterm elections on the horizon, the shouting in the House will be ear-piercing. Shrill. At a decibel level that makes an Iron Maiden concert sound like chamber music. Republicans will crow about the travesty of the health care bill. The Democrats will try to parry the GOP’s thrust. And the tea party will simmer like a pot about to boil over, threatening to scald loyalists from both sides.

It might not be the “permanent campaign.” But with the House in play, both sides are shifting into campaign mode early. And with an agitated public, we could have an August, 2009 on steroids. And rather confined to one month, it could play out like one, drawn-out town hall meeting from here until fall.

But this scenario is fraught with peril for all sides. Including the tea party.

Nothing survives in a vacuum. Democrats know they need to sell their health care reform bill. And they can’t remain stagnant with their legislative agenda. They need to show they’re still working on the economy and are offering solutions. But they can’t burn too much time in Washington. Democrats simultaneously need to get their vulnerable members back to their districts to get in touch with their constituents (painful as it may be at times). It’s a hard decision for Democrats to make: tick off a few more legislative accomplishments or get people back home to press the flesh.

Regardless, there are lots of Democrats who voted no on health care and climate change. And who are wary of being associated in any way with the president or the Speaker of the House. It will be interesting to see how those lawmakers fare in the fall. And whether running away from the Democratic agenda boosts their electoral prospects.

This also spells trouble for the GOP. If Republicans ARE the “party of no,” and Democrats hang out the legislative “Gone Fishin’” sign for the summer, the GOP could suddenly find themselves with very little to say no too. The flip side is Republicans can argue that the die is already cast with health care, not to mention the climate legislation. Republicans think that Democrats have given them plenty to campaign on. Or as House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) said in December, he wanted to see how Democrats market “all the garbage they passed this year.”

But without many opportunities to legislate and little new to oppose, Republicans could find themselves wielding a bugle without a tune.

In addition, Republicans need to win the support of swing voters in the middle. Certainly, the likes of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin (R) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) can draw crowds and fire up the base. But their messages run the risk of sounding too strident for some voters, no matter how disaffected they feel.

And then there’s the tea party.

The tea party has arrived. It may lack a discernable leader. But it is a bona fide movement that has made an impact on the body politic in record time. It threatens the status quo of both parties.

That’s good for the tea party and bad news for Democrats and Republicans.

But whether or not the tea party is viable will depend how it does in upcoming primaries and even general elections. The tea party movement threatens Democrats, opposing “big government” solutions offered up by Mr. Obama and Nancy Pelosi.

And there’s the problem for the GOP. Many in the tea party movement don’t view Republicans as conservative enough for them. If the tea party is ultimately. successful, it could drive a wedge through the Republican party. And a split on that side could be the best thing that’s happened to Democrats in months.

In short, don’t expect a lot of substance from the House of Representatives for the remainder of the year. Most folks are focused on the midterm elections.

It’s all over but the shouting. And expect that in droves.