Election mode hits the Capitol

Greg Nash

Democrats and Republicans are clearing the decks of dangerous political issues that could sink their chances in the midterm elections.

This unusually cautious approach comes nine months before Election Day and illustrates how both parties are reluctant to tackle anything that doesn’t poll well. With the battle for control of the Senate projected to be extremely close, neither side wants to drift into a sudden political storm.

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Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who is likely to hold his majority in the House, made clear Tuesday he does not want to squander his political capital in another vicious fiscal fight.

The GOP’s approval rating dropped to historically low levels in October, after a conservative rebellion helped lead to a government shutdown.

Last week, Boehner all but pronounced immigration reform — another dangerous issue for the GOP — dead for the remainder of 2014.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is using the same playbook.

He slammed the brakes on trade promotion authority legislation — which labor unions staunchly oppose — less than a day after President Obama called for it at the State of the Union address. And Reid is not expected to bring a Democratic budget resolution to the floor this year, either.

Obama, meanwhile, has postponed various facets of the implementation of the unpopular Affordable Care Act, including yet another delay to the employer mandate.

Political operatives say the actions of both parties show there no longer is a respite from election-year maneuvering.

“The pattern has always been closer to the election, the less controversial activity takes place,” said Stuart Roy, a Republican strategist who formerly worked for Senate and House GOP leaders. “Instead of happening a few months out from the election, now we’re seeing the entire legislative year becoming a legislative and regulatory graveyard.”

Obama on Tuesday downplayed the delay of the employer mandate as something that would give businesses a chance “to get right with the law” and said it would affect only a “small percentage” of them.

“Any negative impact of the employer mandate, in terms of companies changing or dropping insurance coverage, those notices would have gone out to employees in some fashion prior to the election and caused problems and turmoil,” Roy said. “Delaying the employer mandate is absolutely tied to November.”

GOP leaders in Congress want to keep the public focus squarely on ObamaCare and don’t want to risk a distraction by waging internal battles over immigration and deficit reduction.

“From the point of view of the House Republicans, one of their considerations is not to draw attention from the economic problems and the healthcare problems created by the president’s healthcare law,” Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of the Senate GOP leadership, said. 

“The president appears not to want his healthcare law to go into effect either, and Sen. Reid has been rewarded time after time now for not requiring Democrats in the Senate to cast the hard votes that the country should see senators casting,” he added. 

Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) has not yet formally announced a decision on whether she will move a budget resolution, but Democratic aides say it’s not going to happen.

“We don’t need to because we just had the budget agreement, which set the limits on spending,” a Senate Democratic aide said, referring to the two-year budget deal Murray struck with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in December. 

The staffer said a Senate budget resolution is not nearly as important as passing immigration reform because last year’s budget deal will give congressional negotiators the numbers they need to put together spending bills.

Democratic strategists say passing a budget this year would be a useless and politically dangerous exercise.

“The annual budget process has become nothing more than an excuse to craft 30-second attack ads. Each year we’ve done that there’s plenty of pain to be spread around, especially for those up for reelection,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former senior aide to Reid.

Ryan has downgraded the importance of passing a budget in the House this year.

“Clearly we don’t have the pressure to produce one, given that we have a two-year budget agreement in place,” he recently told Bloomberg BNA. Still, Ryan last year indicated he will craft a budget measure in 2014. Democrats repeatedly bashed Republican candidates with Ryan’s budget in the 2012 election.

Boehner and other House GOP leaders tested the political waters for a potential push on immigration reform last month when they released a set of principles at the House Republican retreat in Cambridge, Md.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), facing a primary and general election challenge, quickly helped douse the initiative by saying getting such a measure to the president’s desk is unrealistic this year.

Republican strategists warned that the party could wreck itself on a bitter internal debate over immigration reform.

Weekly Standard editor William Kristol warned of a “a circular GOP firing squad.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said anyone pushing “an amnesty bill right now should go ahead and put a ‘Harry Reid for Majority Leader’ bumper sticker on their car.”

“In the House, the leaders have made pretty clear they’re not going to rock the boat,” Manley said.

Boehner told reporters Tuesday that he decided to advance a clean debt-limit bill because he lacked the votes to move an alternative.

Last month, McConnell declared on “Fox News Sunday” that it would be “irresponsible” to move a debt-ceiling bill without conditions.

On Tuesday, however, he declined to comment on what Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, called “a complete capitulation.” 

Reid said Tuesday he still hopes to move smaller-bore bills that have bipartisan support. These include the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act, the Revitalize American Manufacturing and Innovation Act, prison sentencing reform legislation, and a proposed media shield law.

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