Election Day marks beginning of mad political scramble in Congress

For Congress, the election on Tuesday isn’t the end of a long journey but the beginning of a mad scramble.

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When lawmakers wake up on Nov. 7, they will have seven weeks — and just about 16 scheduled legislative days — to resolve an array of tax and spending questions that must be addressed by the end of the year.

The campaign has frozen negotiations over the expiring tax rates and the looming spending cuts known as the fiscal cliff, as both parties await a decision by voters on control of the White House and each chamber in Congress.

The election itself may not determine the outcome of the lame-duck session, but it will reset the leverage that each party holds.

Here are five election scenarios and their impact on the start of the fiscal cliff talks:

Obama wins a clear but narrow victory

Barring a late and as-yet-undetected shift, a reelection victory by President Obama is likely to be narrow, making it difficult for him to claim a clear mandate from the voters. The House will almost surely stay in Republican hands, and the latest polls suggest Democrats will likely maintain a slim majority in the Senate.

All eyes will be on Obama to see how he interprets his victory. 

Will he try to seize a governing mandate and demand that Republicans bow to his push to raise tax rates for the wealthy? Or will he reach out to GOP leaders and attempt quickly to piece together a deficit grand bargain like the one he failed to strike last year with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)?

Look for Republicans to argue that a narrow Obama victory and a continuing House majority represents an endorsement of the status quo by the voters — a mandate not for Obama but for divided government.

“If the president is narrowly reelected and tries to portray it as a mandate to ride roughshod over the people's House, which will also have been reelected, he'll be starting his second term off by repeating the same mistakes with which he began his first term,” a House GOP leadership aide warned.

The aide said the electoral mandate would be for “both parties to work together and find common ground between their two positions.”

At the same time, leading Republicans – including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) – have warned that taxes will “go up” if Obama is reelected, and Democrats are sure to hold them to those statements after Tuesday. 

Obama wins reelection, but loses the popular vote

With national and battleground state polls diverging, a split between the popular and electoral vote appears plausible. While that scenario would leave Obama in the White House for another four years, it would make it virtually impossible for him to claim a clear mandate for the policies he ran on. The same would likely hold if Obama wins but Democrats lose control of the Senate.

Operatives in both parties say that although either of those scenarios could impact the leverage that Democrats and Republicans would carry at the outset of the lame-duck session, it is unlikely to significantly change the ultimate outcome, which would have to be a compromise on the fiscal cliff.

Romney wins presidency, Democrats hold the Senate

A win by Republican nominee Mitt Romney would shake up the lame-duck session of Congress, even though he would not take the oath of office until January. Officials say a Romney victory would torpedo the possibility of a big deficit deal before the end of the year and increase the odds of a congressional “punt” that kicks the major decisions on taxes and spending to the new administration.

President Obama will still hold the veto pen for another two months, and he has vowed to reject an extension of current tax rates for the wealthy. A major question is how big of a role a President-elect Romney would play in the lame duck session.

Two House Republican leadership aides said the party would look to Romney for guidance on what he wants to see happen. As of yet, however, Romney’s transition team has not given them that direction.

Romney wins the presidency and Republicans win full control of Congress

A Republican sweep of the White House would allow the party to claim its own governing mandate and put enormous pressure on President Obama to bend both on taxes and on the automatic cuts slated to hit the Pentagon on Jan. 1. 

Obama, of course, would retain power and Democrats would control the Senate through the lame-duck session, but Republicans would likely argue that any move by Obama to veto an extension of the Bush tax rates would be temporary because they could reinstate those cuts retroactively in 2013.

Pressure would also build immediately on Republicans to begin laying the groundwork to repeal the president’s healthcare law early in the new year, a dynamic that could influence the politics if not the substance of the lame-duck session.

No outcome as election results unclear

This is the nightmare scenario for Congress: The presidential election is so close that no clear winner is determined on Tuesday night and, as with the 2000 election, a recount of ballots in one or more states means the outcome might not be known for weeks.

A House Republican leadership aide said congressional officials are worried about the prospect but do not have definite plans for what to do in that event. While a number of less controversial legislative items could be addressed without a clear winner in the presidential election, aides and lawmakers have long acknowledged that talks on the fiscal cliff will hinge on the outcome.

Political observers and lobbyists believe the most likely result of a disputed election would be for Congress to buy time by temporarily extending current tax rates and delay the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration.