A 2014 breakdown by issue

HEALTHCARE

Bad news for Democratic candidates if ObamaCare goes unfixed
 
ObamaCare could become the dominant issue in 2014 if the law’s rollout continues to face serious problems.

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The massively botched enrollment site has created a major opening for Republicans and played into Democrats’ worst fears, as the party seeks to maintain the Senate and gain seats in the House.

Administration officials have failed so far to make a quick recovery, and if the technical errors persist for HealthCare.gov, the GOP will have extra ammunition to target vulnerable Democrats in red and purple states.

The White House, knowing how much is riding on its efforts, is rushing to neutralize criticism by fixing the sign-up system as quickly as possible.

But a failure to do so would create more than a temporary political drag. Unless millions are able to sign up online — including millions of healthy young people — the insurance marketplaces will fail to function as designed.

This would be disastrous for the Affordable Care Act and pose a serious challenge for Democratic candidates who supported the law.

The rollout’s political sensitivity is evident in rising Democratic support for measures that would change the implementation timeline.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who is up for reelection next year, has rallied support from more than 10 other Democrats for a bill to extend the enrollment window for ObamaCare coverage.

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.), meanwhile, are each working on more forceful measures to delay the individual mandate and allow consumers to keep their current health plans, respectively. Landrieu is facing reelection in 2014.

Conservative groups see these growing cracks among Democrats as ripe for exploitation, as campaign season heats up.

Following the government shutdown, which saw GOP poll numbers sink to record lows, Republican operatives are eager to turn the tables on their opponents.

Publicly, Democratic campaign officials insist that they can run and win by touting the Affordable Care Act.

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) recently argued that the law’s benefits for women would work in her party’s favor when it comes to turning out voters.

She also expressed confidence that no adjustments in the rollout timetable would be necessary.

But other Democrats were fearful that the rollout’s issues could provide fodder for Republicans.

“The problems could have an effect if not clipped and clipped early,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) told The Hill.

— Elise Viebeck


TECHNOLOGY

Snooping fallout and security concerns

Revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance operations are likely to be a hot-button issue in congressional races, but it doesn’t break down along party lines.

The NSA’s strongest defenders on Capitol Hill include Republicans and Democrats, while members of both parties are pushing to rein in the agency’s power.

But defending the NSA could be a risky position for candidates in some close races.

Polling shows some of the deepest skepticism about NSA surveillance since before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

An Associated Press poll from September found that 60 percent of Americans oppose the NSA’s surveillance programs that collect data on telephone and Internet communications.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll from July — which was split between Democrats, Republicans and independents — found that 74 percent of respondents think the surveillance of phone and Internet communications intrudes on the privacy rights of Americans, and 47 percent of respondents think the surveillance is not making much of a difference in the fight to keep the country safe from terrorist attacks.

For Republicans, opposing NSA surveillance gives them a chance to bash the Obama administration. For Democrats, it’s an opportunity to tout their privacy credentials.  

But few want to look weak on national security, and intelligence officials warn that going too far to rein in the programs could leave the nation vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

Lawmakers will soon have to decide which side of the debate they’re on.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), the original author of the Patriot Act, recently introduced the USA Freedom Act to end the NSA’s controversial program to collect records on all U.S. phone calls.

The leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence committees are pushing alternate bills that would tweak the NSA powers but preserve the bulk collection of phone records.

— Brendan Sasso


TRANSPORTATION

Transportation fund shortfall could drive voters

Most of the year of campaigning that will take place in the run up to 2014 elections will occur at the same time as leaders in Congress are grappling with a $20 billion shortfall in transportation funding.

The current round of road and transit funding is set to expire in September 2014, and lawmakers are already looking for ways to avoid turning to other areas of the federal budget, as they did when they passed that transportation measure in 2012.

The problem is that the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax, which has traditionally been the source for transportation spending, is not bringing in as much money as it used to.

The gas tax, which has not been increased since 1993, brings in about $35 billion that could be used for road and transit projects. The 2012 Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century bill included about $54 billion per year in transportation projects.

Lawmakers in both parties have said they do not want to repeat the stopgap funding tricks that were used to cover the last transportation shortfall, but it will be difficult to find a candidate who would want to run on a platform that includes an increase in federal taxes drivers are paying at the pump.

— Keith Laing


FOREIGN POLICY

2014 midterms complicate Obama’s Iran outreach

Skittish lawmakers up for reelection in 2014 are refusing to give President Obama free rein to strike a deal with Iran over its nuclear program.

The White House has asked Congress to delay a new round of sanctions as U.S. diplomats consider recent overtures from the country’s new president, Hassan Rouhani. The request is causing heartburn on Capitol Hill, where vulnerable incumbents have little incentive to trust Iran’s good word.

While Obama hopes to make diplomatic history in his second term, many lawmakers have to worry about reelection. Slapping sanctions on Iran is a perennial favorite on Capitol Hill – the House voted 400-20 to tighten restrictions on the country’s energy sector right after Rouhani’s June election – while any dovish pronouncements risk triggering the devastating accusation that lawmakers are soft on Israel’s security.

Last year’s terror attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, is another foreign policy issue that could play a role in 2014.

Many conservative voters believe the Obama administration has sought to cover up the circumstances behind the attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

Benghazi has created a rift among House Republicans, 177 of whom have signed onto a bill to create a select committee to investigate Benghazi over the objections of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). In the Senate, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is facing three primary challengers, recently threatened to hold up all of Obama’s nominees until lawmakers get access to the Americans who were on the ground during the attack.

Other worldwide developments that could impact the election include the ongoing crisis in Syria and across the Middle East, the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan and trade deals under discussion with European and Pacific Rim countries.

— Julian Pecquet


DEFENSE

Sequester could cause headaches for incumbents

Defense cuts under sequestration could create election year headaches for incumbents from both parties, particularly those who come from military-heavy districts.

The military and defense industry have long warned that sequestration is going to get exponentially worse in 2014 than it was this past year, when the cuts first took effect.

The impact on the military could become ammo for challengers to argue that incumbent lawmakers have inexplicably allowed the across-the-board sequester cuts to stay on the books and harm national security.

Most Democrats and Republicans are opposed to using the sequester to cut spending, but the two sides have been unable to agree on a way to replace the sequester with alternative deficit reduction.

The gridlock has allowed sequestration to take effect, which cut $37 billion from the Pentagon in 2013 and would cut $52 billion from the department’s proposed 2014 budget.

Sequestration played a role in the 2012 campaign. Mitt Romney and Republicans repeatedly criticized President Obama and said the sequester was his idea, while outside groups attacked lawmakers in states like Virginia for their vote on the Budget Control Act, which raised the debt ceiling but also set sequester in motion.

In 2014, there will be actual cuts to point to, although some of the doomsday scenarios echoed by the Pentagon and industry have not come about.

But if layoffs occur at defense firms or planes are grounded at military bases due to the sequester, the effects will be seen locally, giving challengers an opportunity to blame the incumbent for the losses.

—Jeremy Herb


REGULATIONS

Dems trumpet needed regs; GOP hammers overreach

Few issues rank higher on GOP hit lists than federal regulations, and the Obama administration’s aggressive rule-making policies ensure that Republican candidates will have plenty to talk about in the 2014 election cycle.

Democrats, meanwhile, are likely to trumpet the administration’s regulatory achievements as evidence that big things are happening in Washington, albeit with Congress still mired in gridlock.

This fall’s budget impasse exposed a rift between the Republican Party’s establishment and its conservative wing, with the two factions clashing publicly in debt-ceiling talks. The division raised questions about whether Republicans could present voters with a unified message come next November.

That should be no problem when it comes to regulations, which are derided by Tea Partyers and relative centrists alike.

The party’s establishment, which is closely aligned with major business groups, has complained relentlessly that new regulations coming from federal agencies are stifling the country’s fragile economic recovery. For the conservative wing, there is perhaps no better example of government overreach.

Democrats, meanwhile, will point to long-sought policy goals achieved through regulation, as they seek to gather support in their bid to retake control of the House and hang onto the Senate.

Under Obama, the government has finalized, among many others, rules to extend minimum wage rights to millions of workers, rein in risky mortgage lending practices and improve trucker safety. The administration has launched sweeping efforts to overhaul the nation’s food safety system, cut pollution and rewrite hundreds of regulations allowing benefits for same-sex couples.

The most politically charged regulations, however, are still under construction. A set of Environmental Protection Agency rules designed to combat climate change could help rally the Democratic base, as could the completion of scores of regulations required by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law.

But perhaps none will figure into 2014 races more prominently than the Affordable Care Act’s rules — many of which are slated to take effect in January.  In that sense, much rides on the success or failure of the landmark healthcare law.

— Ben Goad

Campaign Finance

Election-year issue: McCutcheon

A Supreme Court decision next year could infuse more money into campaigns, boosting the parties and their wealthy donors.

In 2014, the high court is expected to rule on the case, known as McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which takes aim at aggregate contribution limits for federal candidates and political party committees.

Conservative justices appeared wary of those restrictions during oral arguments in October and might overturn them.

Under law now, contributors can only give a maximum amount of $123,200 — no more than $48,600 to all candidates and $74,600 to all PACs and parties — throughout the course of the two-year 2014 election cycle.

Contribution limits for individual candidates and party committees are capped at $2,600 for candidates and at $32,400 for party committees this cycle. But without aggregate limits, that could seriously juice campaign giving by letting donors give to as many candidates and party committees as they want.

Watchdog groups argue the ruling could be a repeat of the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision. That ruling freed up unlimited donations to flow to outside groups that have financed millions of dollars in political advertising.

Campaign finance reform advocates paint a scenario where, without the aggregate caps, party leaders could solicit million dollar checks and dole them out to their favored candidates through joint fundraising committees. Opponents of campaign finance limits disagree and say the restrictions should be removed so candidates and parties could better compete with the flush outside groups.

Removing aggregate limits on contributions could also increase pressure on a core source of lawmakers’ campaign cash: K Street. With no ready-made excuse of being “maxed out,” lobbyists believe they would be asked even more to open up their wallets to help their friends on Capitol Hill.

— Kevin Bogardus


FINANCE

Raising revenue versus cutting spending

It’s probably a fair assumption that fiscal issues will play an outsized role when voters go to the polls next November, just like they did in the last several national elections.

Just what the fiscal landscape will look like is another question entirely.

One year out, it looks like policymakers seeking broad changes to the tax code and entitlement programs have their work cut out for them.

Right now, 29 negotiators from both parties are seeking a budget deal in the first House-Senate conference committee in four years. But those conferees have suggested a big deal on taxes and spending is unlikely.

Other fiscal deadlines remain before next November, including on the debt limit on Feb. 7, and top lawmakers are working on broad issues like tax reform through the regular committee process.

But it’s entirely possible that current divisions between Democrats and Republicans about whether the rich should pay more in taxes and how much to target entitlement spending will need to be litigated again come November.

Republicans have long tarred Democrats as the party of higher taxes. But Democrats don’t fear that label as much after the 2012 election, in which President Obama and a slew of candidates loudly called for raising taxes on the highest earners — and lived to tell about it. Democrats, for instance, continue to call for more revenue in budget talks with Republicans.

The GOP, meanwhile, rode the Tea Party anger at federal spending and President Obama’s signature healthcare law to a House majority in 2010. Republicans are likely to continue to hammer on those issues, as they deal with the fallout from this fall’s government shutdown.

Still, it also remains to be seen how much the so far disastrous rollout of ObamaCare — a program Republicans say will drag down the economy — will be firmed up in a year’s time.

What the unemployment rate will be in 12 months is a mystery as well. Voters continue to say they would like to see policymakers concentrate more on the economy.

— Bernie Becker


ENERGY

Climate, energy battles will rage into 2014

There’s no end in sight to political controversy and battles over the White House climate change agenda — a topic certain to find its way onto the campaign trail in midterm battles.

The Environmental Protection Agency is slated to propose its carbon emissions rules for existing power plants in June and finalize separate rules for newly constructed plants in September.

In other words, the EPA will be very active during election season. Look for Republicans to try and tether swing-district Democrats to what the GOP and industry groups call a “war on coal.”

For instance, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has already pledged to try and make the EPA rules a liability for vulnerable Democrats like Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Mark Begich (Alaska).

On the substance, the action is in the rule-making battles and, later, the courts. But look for Republicans to push for votes on bills to thwart the EPA’s regulations.

Environmentalists will play offense of their own when it comes to climate change policy, and they have some evidence it might work, even in conservative-leaning states.

Look no further than Virginia, where Democrat Terry McAuliffe was expected to best Republican Ken Cuccinelli in the November 2013 governor contest.

The League of Conservation Voters and other green activists poured money into the race and have apparently prevailed. Virginia, by the way, has substantial coal production.

More broadly, environmentalists and Obama allies believe they have a winning hand to play by hammering Republicans who deny there’s human-induced climate change.

Beyond the climate change battles, Obama administration oversight of the oil and gas extraction method hydraulic fracturing is certain to remain a contentious topic in 2014.

One reason why: The Interior Department is working to finalize rules that would impose new regulations on fracking when it occurs on public and Indian lands.

The rules and the EPA policy toward fracking will likely come up in many oil and gas producing districts.

— Ben Geman