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More financial votes loom for gridlocked Congress

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 08:27 AM
TAMPA -

It's too soon to heave a sigh of relief that Congress avoided the "fiscal cliff."

Two or three more cliffs loom in the coming months, and experts say the Congress that took office Thursday may be less inclined to avoid them.

"The next Congress is going to be even more polarized than the last one. If you liked the 2011-12 gridlock, you're going to love this one," said University of Southern California political scientist Dan Schnur.

Here are the coming cliff-style issues Congress faces:

As in last week's fiscal cliff vote, the focus is likely to be on Republicans – whether they hold a hard line demanding spending cuts and no more tax increases or are willing to compromise with what Democrats call "a balanced approach" on both.

Refusal by Republicans to allow a debt ceiling increase in 2011 led to the fiscal cliff debate, said Thomas Mann, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution think tank.

The ceiling was increased in 2011 only after the parties agreed on a "sequestration" deal that would have imposed sharp tax increases and spending cuts as of Jan. 1. That was referred to as the "fiscal cliff."

Last week's vote staved off the tax threat, but not the threat of huge spending cuts in both defense and domestic programs, which neither side wants.

Florida Republicans split on that vote. Sen. Marco Rubio and 14 House members voted against the deal that averted the cliff plunge, while five Republicans voted for it.

There are signs they will split again in the coming votes.

Rubio said he favors using the debt ceiling as leverage for spending cuts and didn't reject the idea of a government shutdown.

But Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores, who voted for last week's fiscal cliff deal, said through a spokesman that he believes, "The House and Senate can work together to meet all the deadlines without a government shutdown."

A new Congress will deal with these issues; the 113th Congress was elected in November and sworn in Thursday.

It includes a slightly larger Democratic Senate majority of 55-45, counting two independents who caucus with the Democrats. That's up from 53-47 previously.

In the House, the Republican majority shrank from 49 to 33 – 233 Republicans, 200 Democrats and two vacancies, likely to be filled by one in each party.

Despite the Democrats' increased Senate majority and closer-to-even House split, experts on Congress say moderation and tendency to compromise aren't likely to increase.

"You're going to see a more conservative Republican caucus and a more liberal set of Democrats," said Schnur, a former California GOP strategist who now heads USC's Unruh Institute of Politics.

Several moderates in both parties either retired or lost elections, he said, and newly drawn district lines created more safe districts whose members who won't have to worry about views of those on the other side of the aisle.

The bitterness between the GOP-controlled House and Democratic Senate got even worse in the fiscal cliff debate, said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist and Congress-watcher at Emory University.

Democrats still don't have enough Senate votes to cut off Republican filibusters, unless there's a change in Senate rules, and Republicans still hold a comfortable House majority, he noted.

"You have a very, very conservative Republican House majority, a Democratic president, and a Senate with its center of gravity slightly left of center but way, way left of the House majority," he said.

"With very few moderates in either chamber, bipartisan majorities are almost impossible to create. That's going to make it very difficult to get anything done."

And making the situation worse, he said, is the increasing influence of highly ideological, independent political committees – the kind that spent millions in the November election.

The split among Republicans was dramatized when a dozen GOP House members refused Thursday to vote to re-elect John Boehner of Ohio as speaker in protest over his backing the fiscal cliff deal.

One of those was newly elected Ted Yoho of Gainesville, a tea party champion who defeated long-term member Cliff Stearns of Ocala in this year's GOP primary.

Obama has said he won't negotiate over the debt ceiling vote.

"I will not compromise over … whether or not Congress should pay the tab for a bill they've already racked up," Obama said in his weekly address Saturday.

He said the 2011 hesitation to raise the ceiling damaged the national economy and if there was a default now, "The consequences for the entire global economy could be catastrophic."

But some Republicans including Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania are already taking a hard line on the coming budget votes, saying Republicans should be willing to cause a temporary or partial government shutdown to achieve spending cuts they believe are necessary.

Asked whether Rubio agrees, spokesman Alex Conant responded, "Sen. Rubio opposed the last debt ceiling increase, and he certainly doesn't think we should raise it again without serious spending reforms, including entitlements."

Despite rejecting the idea of a government shutdown, Young still placed the blame for the financial crisis in the Democratic-led Senate, and made it clear he considered the fiscal cliff deal he voted for to be imperfect.

"The Constitution provides a system to do this," he said. "The system has been ignored by the Senate."

But he said the sequestration spending cuts would be disastrous for the military, and a default on the national debt would increase the cost of interest on the debt.

As to whether the new Congress will be more polarized than the last, Young said it's too soon to tell.

"We don't really have a reading what the attitudes are going to be on either side. But they're the same problems the Congress has been having."

But Democrats blamed the divisiveness on Republican intransigence.

"Republicans have a choice to make – they can go the way of being extremely divisive, or do what the Americans want us to do, which is work together," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, who's also national Democratic Party chairman.

Those who want to use the debt ceiling as leverage "are willing to jeopardize our recovery rather than work together for balanced deficit reduction."

Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa, generally a strong Obama ally, said the November election "sent a message to Washington that we must work together" on issues including immigration and gun control as well as the fiscal issues.


wmarch@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7761

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