2013: A year of living dismally

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Heading into an election year, Democrats and Republicans are trying to figure out how to salvage their brands after a bruising 2013.

The political year has seen a succession of angry standoffs, starting with the fiscal cliff fight last New Year and ending this week with a Friday the 13th deadline for a budget deal.

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Voters are fed up with repeated brinkmanship, and their representatives in Congress are rushing to deflect the backlash toward their opponents or even toward others within their own parties.

“I’m happy to see Thanksgiving and Christmas come around so that we can have some real celebration away from this place because there’s nothing to celebrate around here,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat from Missouri, who lamented the fiasco of the ObamaCare rollout and gridlock over the budget and immigration.

Fiscal stalemate led to a 16-day government shutdown in October. Now, lawmakers are just days away from another budget deadline to prevent automatic spending cuts in January. If they cannot strike a deal, the government could shut down again next month. Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at The Cook Political Report, said, “Both parties have been damaged ... Voters are pretty unhappy with everything.”

She said Republicans were damaged by the shutdown they triggered trying to defund the Affordable Care Act and Democrats were damaged once implementation began.

“It creates turnout problems for Democrats,” she said, citing Democrats’ dropping approval numbers among young voters and Hispanics.

“Republicans, of course, have their brand problem, which they’ve done nothing about.”

Seeing Congress’s approval rating hovering around 9 percent, party leaders have decided that offense is their best defense.

Republicans will make ObamaCare their No. 1 campaign issue in 2014.

Big problems with the HealthCare.gov website and the realization that people cannot keep healthcare plans they like, despite President Obama’s promise, pushed the president’s approval rating to near-record lows. A recent Gallup poll put it at 42 percent.

“It’s difficult to damage the president without damaging Democrats in Congress and I think that hurt us,” Cleaver said.

In consequence, Senate Democrats complained bitterly in private meetings with senior administration officials. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Obama’s staff had done him a “disservice” by not qualifying his promise that people could keep their health plans if they wanted to.

Republicans see this issue as vital to capturing control of the Senate in the midterm elections.

“I feel confident that we’re on the right side of history on ObamaCare,” said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

A senior Senate Democratic leadership aide, however, argued the strategy would backfire, predicting voters will tire of GOP harping over settled law.

“Voters want to move on,” the aide insisted, adding, “every poll in the world shows their number one concern is economy and jobs.”

Republicans, knowing they need voters to see them as something more attractive than the “Party of No,” have begun to change their tune as the elections come into view.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) last week pointed out that House Republicans have passed nearly 150 bills and sent them to the Senate, but Democrats in the upper chamber are sitting on them.

Boehner’s emphasis on House legislative activity and Senate inaction is an about face since the summer ,when he said Congress should be judged on how many laws it repeals rather than how many it passes.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a close ally of McConnell’s, has spearheaded an effort to craft a plan to replace ObamaCare.

“The whole conference is talking about this,” said a Senate GOP aide, citing a proposal to allow people to purchase health insurance across state lines, just as they do with auto insurance.

A majority of House Republicans have also coalesced in support of an alternative healthcare plan offered by Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.).

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) is working on an agenda for 2014 that emphasizes conservative solutions to economic problems facing the middle class.

Republican leaders have tried to distance their party from the shutdown by depicting it as the result of an ill-conceived political strategy driven by junior colleagues.

“I think we have fully now acquainted our new members with what a losing strategy that is,” McConnell told The Hill earlier this year.

Democrats want to shift the conversation to jobs, the economy and immigration.

“The president is going to do what he can to pivot back to jobs and the economy. That’s where he’s going on [the] State of the Union address,” said a senior labor official.

Obama delivered a speech on income inequality last week and Senate Democrats want to pass legislation raising the minimum wage as soon as possible.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) on Thursday at first seemed to demand that any budget deal reached before Christmas include an extension of emergency unemployment benefits. She later suggested the unemployment measure could be passed independently.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has not joined Pelosi’s attempt to put pressure on Senate and House negotiators, opting to let Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) work out a budget deal between themselves.

“We’ll seek on some level to extend unemployment insurance,” said a Senate Democratic aide.

“We’re not turning to jobs and the economy in order to deflect criticism. We’re turning to jobs and the economy because that’s what needs to get done,” the staffer added. “There’s nothing for us to do on ObamaCare. There’s no legislation for us. There are fixes here and there that need to happen, but it’s not a real agenda if you’re a legislator to say, ‘I’m going to focus on beating up the president on ObamaCare.’ ”

Senate Democrats will also try to confirm Janet Yellen, Obama’s pick to lead the Federal Reserve, as well as Mel Watt, who was nominated to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and several other nominees before the year’s end. They also hope to vote on Defense authorization legislation and a farm bill, routine items in past years.

Reid has sought to shift public focus to House Republican inaction on immigration.

“If the Republicans ever want to elect a Republican president again, they’re going to have to get right with the Hispanic and Asian community who, by more than 70 percent, voted for Obama last time,” he told the Las Vegas Sun.

“There’s going to be so much pressure on the House that they’ll have to pass it,” he said.

Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said GOP failure to pass an immigration bill “fits into the narrative of a House Republican Congress that has veered from doing nothing to doing damage.”

He added, “Six weeks ago pundits were suggesting the shutdown was a fatal blow to House Republicans. Now some of the same pundits are saying the rollout of ObamaCare is a fatal blow to Democrats. Neither view is true.”

Some Democrats think Obama could have done more to forge bipartisan agreement on immigration.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a leading advocate of reform, said Obama should have convened an immigration summit with Republicans at the White House. “He should have already done that, yes. He should already have called them, and just Republicans,” he said. “Somebody’s got to talk to them.”

Gutierrez voiced optimism that a bill could pass next year, noting Boehner recently hired a new immigration policy director who formerly worked for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the lead co-author of the Senate immigration bill.