Dust still settling from Democrats' departures
By Ben Pershing
One day after a trio of high-profile Democrats announced they won't run for reelection, a consensus has formed in Washington that the moves are an ominous sign for the majority party. Just how ominous, however, remains the subject of debate.
Byron Dorgan's retirement boosted Republicans' chances in North Dakota, Chris Dodd's retirement boosted Democrats' chances in Connecticut and the jury is still out on what Bill Ritter's departure means in Colorado. Specific races aside, the spate of announcements this week provides more evidence that momentum is building toward a successful Election Day for the GOP, and such a prophecy can become self-fulfilling as candidates and campaign donors on both sides adjust their plans accordingly.
The New York Times reports that the decisions "signaled that President Obama is facing a perilous political environment that could hold major implications for this year's midterm elections and his own agenda." The Wall Street Journal writes: "The defensive mood could hurt fund raising and candidate recruitment and will likely force the White House to further scale back its ambitions. Controversial initiatives already on the operating table, such as climate-change legislation, almost certainly won't be revived this year, as nervous members start pondering their chances in November." Dan Balz frames the situation this way: "Democrats now face the evaporation of their 60-vote filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and losses in the House that a number of strategists across party lines conservatively estimate in the range of 20 to 25 seats. Republicans also predict that by the end of this year, they will control the majority of the nation's governors."
Democrats got more bad news Wednesday, courtesy of this rough headline from Gallup: "Democratic Support Dips Below Majority Level in 2009." The polling firm notes that the party's identification is down to 49 percent, though Democrats still hold an 8-point lead over Republicans on this question. And there is something of a bright side for Democrats -- the majority party will probably remain one in 2011. Politico says "it doesn't yet appear that the party's congressional majorities are threatened. Republicans are poised to make major gains in the House and the Senate, but the number of seats necessary to reclaim the majority makes it unlikely that they could knock the Democrats out of power in either chamber."
Roll Call adds that "even with the spate of House Democratic retirement decisions late in the fall, and the headline-making bow-outs by Dodd and Dorgan revealed Tuesday, the image of Democrats racing each other to the lifeboats is, at this point at least, still a stretch," as there are still more Republicans leaving office than Democrats in both the House and Senate. Gail Collins mocks the chattering class' response to Dodd and Dorgan: "We are only one week into the new year, and the political world is in turmoil. It's a wonder we can continue on with our regular duties." Republicans have some problems of their own, as Mark Leibovich's opus on Marco Rubio and the Florida Senate race makes clear.
While some controversial bills may be slowed by nervous Democrats, another Obama priority -- financial regulatory reform -- could actually get a boost by the decision of Dodd, the Banking Committee chairman, to retire. The Washington Post says most observers "agreed that Dodd's desire to leave behind meaningful changes, coupled with the freedom from a grueling and uncertain reelection campaign, bodes well for the prospect that a bipartisan bill could emerge from the Senate." The Associated Press reaches a similar conclusion, writing that Dodd's retirement means he "can now cast himself as the honest broker in negotiations over a massive Wall Street regulation bill."
Two weeks after the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt, we're still learning who knew what when. "U.S. border security officials learned of the alleged extremist links of the suspect in the Christmas Day jetliner bombing attempt as he was airborne from Amsterdam to Detroit and had decided to question him when he landed," the Los Angeles Times reports, adding: "The new information shows that border enforcement officials discovered the suspected extremist ties involving the Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, in a database despite intelligence failures that have been criticized by President Obama." Michael Mukasey argues that Abdulmutallab has been mishandled, and should have been subjected to tough interrogation much more quickly than he was.
Abdulmutallab was indicted Wednesday on six counts by a federal grand jury, and an unclassified report will be released Thursday on how the government missed clues in advance of the attack. James Jones tells USA Today that Americans will feel "a certain shock" when they read the report, and that Obama ""is legitimately and correctly alarmed that things that were available, bits of information that were available, patterns of behavior that were available, were not acted on." The Washington Post writes that the Detroit incident "has reignited long-simmering concerns that intelligence reforms implemented five years ago remain inadequate to prevent terrorist attacks."
The New York Times looks at the victims of last week's bombing of a CIA station in Afghanistan, taking "a rare public glimpse of a closed society, a peek into one sliver of the spy agency as it operates more than eight years after the C.I.A. was pushed to the front lines of war." Joe Klein writes on the same attack and laments that it got far less attention than the Christmas Day attempt: "The reaction to the two terrorist attacks during the last week in December is puzzling. One of the attacks, against a CIA outpost in Afghanistan, succeeded; the other, on an airplane landing in Detroit, failed. The Undiebomber was an amateur who was thwarted, rather neatly, by his fellow passengers on the plane. The Afghanistan operation was quite the opposite -- highly sophisticated and devastating, with vast implications for both the war in Afghanistan and future clandestine CIA operations. And yet the Undiebomber has provoked an avalanche of attention in our twittery media -- and from Republicans like Dick Cheney who yearn for the return of "enhanced" interrogation techniques. The Afghanistan attack hasn't caused nearly the public fuss, but make no mistake: it has to be a matter of much greater concern to the White House than the Detroit fiasco."
On health care, Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that the House and Senate were "very close" to figuring out a compromise between their two reform bills. But that optimism didn't obscure the fact that key differences remain. Obama "expressed a preference for a Senate proposal to tax so-called Cadillac plans in a meeting yesterday" with Pelosi and other leaders, Bloomberg reports, pointing out that "the Cadillac tax is opposed by labor unions, which are among the party's strongest backers, and 190 House Democrats." The New York Times notes that while Obama made his stance clear during the private meeting, the president "has mostly tried to avoid taking public positions on potential disputes between the chambers, to the point that some lawmakers, including some Congressional leaders, have complained that the White House has not provided enough guidance." The excise tax idea has its critics beyond just labor unions, the Washington Post writes, as "skeptics continue to raise questions about who would be hit hardest and whether health-care spending would be limited as much as proponents say."
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