WASHINGTON – With the enemy at the gates, and facing heavy casualties, Democrats in Congress are preparing to do what any beleaguered army does: head for the hills and leave booby-traps behind.
The bigger the margin Republicans pile up next Tuesday, the less likely it is that the Democrats will be able to – or want to – do much when Congress reconvenes for a lame-duck session on November 15.
Rather, leadership aides tell me, they will want to do the minimum, pushing the toughest decisions on taxes, spending and debt forward to a newer, presumably more Republican, 112th Congress, which will convene for the first time on January 3, 2011.
Come January, the new Tea Party-infused GOP then would have to quickly confront the real-world consequences of its tax-cutting, budget-cutting, debt-reducing, anti-government rhetoric.
“Some of our liberals are arguing that we have to do what we can in the lame-duck if it’s going to be our last chance, but that is unrealistic if the numbers next week are bad,” a top Democratic aide told me.
“If we lose big, we’ll punt. We’ll have to.”
For one, it means that lame-duck Democrats will pass another short “continuing resolution” to cover funding of all government programs. (The current one expires on Dec. 3.) If that happens, President Obama will not get the priorities and new programs he wanted, and Republicans will get the chance to undo them.
But the GOP will have to quickly make good on their pledge to cut $100 billion in spending — a number they have bragged about even while avoiding discussing painful, controversial specifics.
Most House Democrats, under siege though they are, are against extending the Bush-era income tax cuts to families who make more than $250,000. They will try to hold that line, but if they can’t, they will fight for a short-term extension for that top bracket.
Again, the idea is to make the GOP, in the new Congress, focus on that one group’s needs.
Democrats will try to vote more money for unemployment benefits. Winning that vote – even in the lame duck – won’t be easy. Democrats will do their best, but, again, that may mean a short-term measure. Republicans would have to return to the matter in January.
The most powerful IED on the road ahead is timed to explode some time this spring. Last February, Congress raised the ceiling on the national debt from $12.4 trillion to $14.2 trillion. Since then, the debt has risen to $13.7 trillion – which means Congress will have to raise it yet again within a few months.
A failure to approve one would, technically, bar the government from borrowing more money. In other words, we would not have the cash to pay our bills.
And yet Tea Party candidates and their fellow travelers in the GOP have vowed to oppose further increases in the legal debt ceiling.
Are they going to stick to that idea when faced with the reality of default?
Democrats will be eager to see. It may be the only fun they’re going to have.