Call this week’s election a political mulligan — a new opportunity for divided, dysfunctional government to find a compromise on tax increases, spending cuts, debt and a mediocre economy.
Politicians in both parties Wednesday said they hope to find common ground on a range of pressing challenges — while conceding that voters did little to break the partisan gridlock that has gripped ever tighter on the country’s levers of power.
Final election returns showed Republicans kept their hold on the U.S. House. Democrats picked up seats in the Senate. President Barack Obama will stay in the White House.
Despite that more-of-the-same formula, some actually saw a glimmer of a shot at change.
“Over 80 percent of the people coming out of the polls said, ‘Work this out. Don’t be rigid,’ ” said Dan Glickman, former agriculture secretary and Kansas congressman, and now a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “That message has got to get through.”
Republican and Democratic leaders made similar, possibly wishful, statements.
“This country is not saying to either party, ‘You’re 100 percent right,’ ” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat who was easily re-elected Tuesday. “We need to come together and quit fooling around.”
McCaskill said she discussed the issue with Obama Wednesday. The re-elected chief executive also phoned leaders of both parties in Congress.
“Compromise is not a dirty word,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. “It’s better to dance than to fight.”
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, also talked of “creating an atmosphere” for common ground.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky joined in, sort of. “To the extent (the president) wants to move to the political center, which is where the work gets done in a divided government, we’ll be there to meet him halfway,” he said in a statement that seemed to emphasize that it was Obama who needed to start giving in.
Others, though, said the voters’ endorsement of the political status quo did little to fully settle quarrelsome issues like raising tax rates or cutting entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
The issues — and most of the faces — are the same after the voting as they were before.
“It’s confusing,” said U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, a re-elected Kansas Republican. “The public’s very upset with the status quo, but sent many of the same status quo people back to Washington.”
Stock indexes dropped sharply Wednesday, and partisans from the left and right darkly warned against compromising “principle.”
“If the president offers a serious reform of entitlements, or some other worthwhile policy, conservatives should be willing to bargain with him,” wrote the editors at the National Review, a leading conservative publication. “If he continues on the path of his first term — and why would he not, after this election? — we should feel duty-bound to oppose him.”
Woody Cozad, former chairman of the Missouri Republican Party, said the path forward is murky.
“I’m not very hopeful,” he said. “And I’m sick and tired of the Republicans being blamed for it.”
But he also said Republicans might coalesce around a budget framework developed by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, which would broadly reduce some entitlement spending in return for additional tax revenue.
Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have worked quietly on a similar package this fall.
The country will get a hint about the chances for compromise next week, when Congress returns for a lame-duck session.
It will face decisions on extending all or part of the Bush-era tax cuts, renewing or ending the payroll tax holiday, extending the national debt ceiling and adjusting payment rates for doctors under Medicare. Perhaps the most daunting element of that looming so-called “fiscal cliff” is known as the sequester — automatic spending cuts for defense and non-defense programs that neither Democrats nor Republicans want. Rather, it’s a poison pill created earlier this year to enforce budget discipline.
A possible answer: a modest, kick-the-can-down-the-road agreement followed by another attempt at a “grand bargain” on spending and taxes next summer and fall.
“I think there’s a political advantage for everybody to come to some kind of a deal,” said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas.
Yoder, though, said he’d prefer using the fiscal cliff as a lever to reach a bargain on all outstanding budget issues. If that meant his party would have to bend a bit more following Tuesday’s election results, so be it. But the threat of the country tumbling over the edge into another recession could be a powerful incentive for real compromise now rather than later.
“I am prepared to be part of a long-term solution that requires give and take from both sides,” he said.
Still, few members of Congress seemed willing Wednesday to suggest the era of broken government is over.
Most Republicans, for example, remain bitterly opposed to the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which now moves closer to full implementation. Some refused to back away from attempts to adjust the law despite Obama’s victory Tuesday.
“We’re going to have to look at only repealing parts of it,” said U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a Missouri Republican. “Or defunding parts of it. It’s still important for individual freedom to pursue making some changes there.”
Missouri voters endorsed a proposal Tuesday prohibiting the state from establishing a health insurance exchange under the ACA without legislative approval. Whether state lawmakers will resume that process wasn’t immediately clear.
Kansas faces a similar decision. Paperwork for ACA health exchanges is due at the end of the year, although establishment of the insurance marketplaces in states that create them won’t take place until next year.
There are also long-term concerns that will need Washington’s focus, including immigration reform, energy policy and foreign affairs, members of both parties noted.
Republicans are expected to pursue a deeper investigation into the deaths of four Americans in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The House, still under GOP control, maintains its subpoena power.
Congress also faces choices on a new farm bill, which stalled this summer.
The government was too divided to pass it.