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Wimping Out on Tough Votes

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Liberals enthused by President Obama’s soaring inauguration rhetoric and conservatives fearful of an impending socialist takeover should all take a deep breath. Much of what liberals passionately want and conservatives deeply fear is unlikely to ever make it to a vote on the House or Senate floors.

For the past two decades, one of the least understood but most important unwritten job requirements for congressional leaders has been to protect their members from difficult and potentially politically costly votes, either in committee or on the floor. Some of the most pressing policy issues of the day are never voted on or are so diluted that one would be hard-pressed to use voting records to nail down how any member feels about anything of real consequence.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner both understand that sparing their members from casting difficult votes is now part of their jobs—and, in their caucus members’ eyes, a very important part. Maybe it’s a vote that would force some members to choose between their party’s base and swing voters, or maybe it’s one that would alienate a key constituency: Avoidance is preferred to pain. Even if many in the party are chomping at the bit to take on an issue, they usually end up deferring to party leaders who will sideline a vote if it endangers enough members, particularly if a party’s majority in a chamber is on the line.

In the old days, senators would disdainfully look down on the House, the “lower body,” in part because the House Rules Committee so thoroughly regulated floor debates and amendments. In recent years, however, the Senate has grown more restricted as constant threats of filibuster prevent consideration of controversial legislation. These days, the Senate majority leader often resorts to a tactic employed by the late Sen. Robert Byrd and former Sen. Bob Dole called “filling the amendment tree,” which prevents the minority from offering troublesome amendments. It’s now commonplace for House members to refer to the Senate as a legislative cemetery, a place where bills go to die.

A top priority for Reid, who clearly has the upper hand in the Senate on scheduling and allowing (or not allowing) votes, is protecting incumbents facing potentially tough reelection fights in 2014, such as Max Baucus in Montana, Mark Begich in Alaska, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Pryor in Arkansas, and, if he seeks another term, Tim Johnson in South Dakota. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried Pryor’s Arkansas by 24 percentage points, Landrieu’s Louisiana by 17 points, Johnson’s South Dakota by 18 points, and Begich’s Alaska and Baucus’s Montana by 14 points each. Democratic incumbents running in purple states include Kay Hagan in North Carolina, where Romney won by 2 points, and Mark Warner in Virginia, where Obama won by the same margin.

Although all of the other Democratic incumbents up next year are in states that Obama carried by at least 5 points, there are probably a few issues that, for instance, Mark Udall would rather not contend with as he runs again in Colorado (Obama by 5 points). The same goes for Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire (Obama by 6 points). Should Tom Harkin seek a sixth term, he might prefer to sidestep some tough votes—but, then again, Harkin rarely avoids a fight if one is handy.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is not situated so well to dictate what votes will be held. But because he has only one incumbent up in a state that Romney carried by less than 8 points—Susan Collins in Maine—he will be under considerably less pressure from his members.

Boehner’s debt-ceiling vote strategy is to force Senate action on a budget—to return to “regular order”—thereby setting up votes that not only give Republicans more say in the outcome but also make it impossible for Reid to protect his members who are vulnerable in 2014, 2016, and even 2018.

At the same time, Republicans are seeking to slow things down, in the same way a coach whose team has fallen behind will often call a time-out, to regroup, rethink, and calm the players down. Most congressional Republicans realize how badly the election hurt their party and how much their brand suffered during the campaign and even since the election. Although the GOP has not yet settled on a course of action, Republican leaders see a disadvantage in tackling entitlement issues before the public better understands the threat of budget deficits and debt. That education will take some time.

All of this is a departure from the old days when tough votes were considered an unpleasant but necessary responsibility of serving in Congress. If you don’t want to cast tough votes, don’t run for Congress, the thinking went. Today, members’ avoidance of tough votes means kicking the proverbial can farther down the road.

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