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Who won the Democrat and Republican Gift Exchange: Roll Call Article by Nathan Gonzales Dec. 24, 2013

ImageThe two parties aren’t exactly on the best of terms these days, but that didn’t stop Republicans and Democrats from exchanging gifts over the past year — even if they didn’t intend to.

Instead of fruitcake, each party gave the other a sparkling set of potentially potent political opportunities. And regardless of whether it was intended, there is a common theme among the gifts on both sides.

5 Gifts From Republicans to Democrats

Ted Cruz: The junior senator from Texas nearly single-handedly changed the trajectory of the midterm elections to a referendum on the tea party and the government shutdown. The botched rollout of HealthCare.gov might have bailed out Cruz by shifting the focus back to the Affordable Care Act, but there is still almost a year left for the senator to rise again.

The tea party: One of the only entities less popular than President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party is the tea party. However you want to define it, the tea party is the gift that keeps on giving to Democrats. Whether through rhetoric, tactics or damaged candidates, Democrats will use this gift in races across the country to try to bring down Republicans, even ones who aren’t part of the movement.

The government shutdown: Democrats are determined to make the 2014 elections a referendum on the tea party and an unpopular Congress led by the Republican House majority. The government shutdown was a gift that played right into Democrats’ hands. Even though it’s over and may not happen again, Democrats will remind voters about it next year and use Republican votes for the piecemeal bills as evidence that they voted to “shut down the government.”

Georgia GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss’s retirement prompted a crowd of Republicans to jump into the race to succeed him. At a minimum this gift could produce a damaged and financially broke GOP nominee after a bitter runoff on July 22. Or even better for Democrats, Republicans could nominate a potentially unelectable candidate. Georgia isn’t a swing state yet, but this gift could make the Senate race competitive next year.

Tom Latham’s and Frank R. Wolf’s Retirements. Democrats have been waiting for both GOP congressmen to leave so that they could seriously challenge their seats in Iowa and Virginia, respectively. Republicans apparently decided to grant Democrats an early Christmas miracle when both men announced their retirement on the same day. Democrats have a great opportunity to win both seats next year, unless their party’s gifts to Republicans get in the way.

5 Gifts From Democrats to Republicans

An unpopular president: There may not be a bigger gift this season than an unpopular president before the midterm elections. Obama’s job rating stands at about 42 percent approve and 54 percent disapprove, according to the HuffPost Pollster average. Obama’s job rating stood at 45 percent approve and 50 percent disapprove before the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans made major gains in the House and Senate. Of course the president’s standing can improve, but it won’t be easy.

“If your like your health care plan, you can keep it”: Even as the White House and some Democrats on the Hill are working to make this gift irrelevant, it is likely to be the one that keeps on giving next year. Obama’s now nuanced campaign promise is more than a policy issue. It risks damaging his credibility, which can be much more difficult to recover. And some Democratic incumbents are on the record saying the same thing. Politifact added to the gift by declaring the statement the 2013 “Lie of the Year.”

The Affordable Care Act: This is practically a re-gift from 2010, but Republicans won’t turn it down. Some optimistic Democrats believe the ACA will ultimately be a gift to their party, as people start to enjoy the benefits. But some Democratic strategists and candidates see it as that gift you get that you can’t return or even give away. The legislation continues to be very polarizing and particularly unpopular in right-leaning districts and states where the battle for the majorities will take place.

Rep. Jim Matheson’s retirement: Cycle after cycle, Republicans failed to defeat the Democratic congressman from Utah. But his recent retirement announcement opens up the 4th District, and makes it a very likely GOP takeover.

Senate retirements: If Sens. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Max Baucus of Montana, Carl Levin of Michigan, and Tom Harkin of Iowa hadn’t announced their retirements, we wouldn’t be talking about Republicans having a chance at winning a Senate majority next year. A couple of them could have faced competitive races, but not all of them. The open seats are a huge gift from Democrats to Republicans.

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Lawmakers Agree to a Deal: Cease Fire in Spending War

Last week, both houses of Congress passed the Ryan-Murray budget deal put forth by the Budget Conference Committee.  The House passed the measure on Thursday night Dec. 12th by a 332-94 vote, and the Senate followed suit by passing the deal the following Thursday Dec. 19th by a vote of 64-36, and the final measure was to be signed into law by President Obama before he leaves on holiday travels to Hawaii.  The two year deal provides for $1.012 trillion in discretionary spending in FY2014, with a slight increase to $1.014 trillion for FY2015.   The compromise deal sits essentially half-way between the $1.058 trillion passed by the Democratically controlled Senate in their budget bill this past spring and the $967 billion sequester level spending Republicans sought to continue.

The deal allocates $520.5 billion in military spending and $491.8 billion for domestic programs in 2014.  The across the board spending cuts of sequestration have been lifted, with the moderately increased spending to be split evenly between military and domestic spending, which restores military funding nearly to pre-sequestration levels.  However, Congress will still face tough decisions in allocating domestic spending through the appropriations process, but the impact on popular programs such as education and Head Start will be less severe. The compromise deal does not continue unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed which are set to expire three days after Christmas, as Democrats had wanted, and it removes the across the board spending cuts of sequestration in exchange for future savings, disappointing Republicans.  In favor of reaching a deal in time to meet the January 15, 2014 deadline, the larger and more ideological issues of tax reform to raise more revenue and containing growing Medicare and Social Security entitlement spending were left largely unresolved.

Among other specific provisions, the deal raises airline fees, presumably to be dedicated towards costs of airport security, and extends the 2% reduction in Medicare payments under the Budget Control Act of 2011 for an additional two years through 2023.  However, the largest impact will be felt by government employees and military veterans.  Although federal workers will receive a 1% pay increase, that is below the 1.2% inflation rate recently published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and does not extend to the lowest paid tiers of wage grade federal employees.  New federal employees will be required to contribute 4.4% of their income towards their government pension program, a continued increase from the .8% required pre-sequestration.  Also contentious is the reduction of the cost-of-living adjustments by 1% for military retirees under age 62.  Despite the increased spending, domestic programs may still face staff reductions through layoffs and early retirement or buyout offers.

Recognizing the challenging timetable to complete the appropriations process before the current stop-gap measure that ended the October federal shut down expires on January 15, 2014, the allocation levels for the twelve individual appropriations bills, known as 302(b) spending caps, were not made public as is customary.  Each subcommittee was privately told it’s cap and given until January 2, 2014 to make detailed appropriations and policy changes.  Negotiators will convene the following week with the goal of getting passage through the House by January 10, allowing the Senate to begin deliberations on January 13, in time to send a final bill to President Obama for his signature by the January 15 deadline. Assuming this two-year budget deal can be finalized in time to meet the January 15 deadline, Congress still faces revisiting the debt-ceiling issue as that short-term measure is set to lapse as early as March 2014.

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