Congress and Obama have little room for compromise | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 13.01.2015
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Congress and Obama have little room for compromise

The new Republican-controlled Congress and President Obama are likely to disappoint American voters who want them work together. Areas for compromise are narrow and early signs don’t look promising.

After the midterm election last fall, both the victorious Congressional Republicans and President Barack Obama delivered their obligatory talking points about wanting to work together in the new year if only for the benefit of the American people. After all, that is exactly what a large majority of US voters want them to do according to #link: published last month.

The problem is that as the new Congress has taken up work, its agenda seems to indicate the contrary. At the top of Congress' early to-do-list is pushing through the construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline and undermining Obama's signature health care reform legislation.

Both are issues that Obama will do everything he can to block, including using his presidential veto. House Republicans are also taking aim at another one of Obama's milestone projects, immigration reform, via amendments to the funding bill for the Homeland Security Budget.

More gridlock almost impossible

Meanwhile, President Obama, with his recent reversal of US policy towards Cuba, has added fresh fuel to Republican furor of already being side-stepped by the White House on immigration.

"It is probably not possible for gridlock to become worse than it was in the previous Congress," said Barry Burden, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told DW.

At least in theory, Republicans who won back full control over Congress in November for the first time in eight years should have a clear incentive to prove to the American public that they can not just obstruct, but govern.

USA Einwanderungsreform Grenze zu Mexiko

Obama's immigration reform remains a contentious issue

"Serious adults are in charge here and we intend to make progress," incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised recently. But his party's actions in Congress - explicitly tabling divisive issues with little chance for legislative success - appear to contradict that dictum.

Similarly, at least in theory House Speaker John Boehner should have a little more space to cooperate with the White House and Senate due to a larger Republican majority in the chamber. But since Boehner's election was marred by the biggest party mutiny against an incumbent House leader since the Civil War, he may also think twice before compromising too much with Obama so as not to risk another conservative revolt.

Many non-starters

"There is a range of issues where bipartisan cooperation will not be happening," said Burden. He puts health care reform, the Keystone pipeline and immigration on that list. "New gun control legislation appears to be off the table entirely."

Thus the areas for compromise are limited.

"At the moment, the president and GOP leaders agree on free trade measures, and those should be able to pass," said Peverill Squire an American politics scholar at the University of Missouri told DW. He also thinks compromises on immigration and tax reform while extremely difficult, are not entirely unlikely.

"The big question will come on budget issues," predicted Squire. "GOP leaders will seek to avoid shutting down the government, but they will still press to reduce spending. How much and how successfully they are able to do that remains to be seen."

Budget deal

USA Präsident Bill Clinton mit Newt Gingrich und Trent Lott

A divided government succeeded in balancing the budget

Burden agrees that the budget question could become the biggest bipartisan legislative effort undertaken and resolved simply because it cannot be avoided. But he cautioned: "It is difficult to see where they might compromise on anything but trivial elements in the budget."

He noted, however, that with a little outside help, even a fiercely divided Congress and president sometimes can achieve success.

"Surprise is possible, as when President Clinton and a Republican Congress approved a balanced budget in the late 1990s. If the economy continues to improve as it did then, tax revenues will increase and there will be opportunities to shrink the deficit, something that both parties would like to brag about to voters."

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