In Washington, Seeking 'Civility' in a New Era

WASHINGTON — During the dog days of August, House Republican leader John Boehner urged President Obama to fire his entire economic team for failing to lead the nation out of the recession and create more jobs.

By early September, Obama was attacking the lesser-known Boehner by name — eight times in one speech — as part of a strategy that reflected the building tension between the party leaders.

Now the House speaker-to-be who once waited tables at his father's Cincinnati tavern and the president who once organized low-income residents on Chicago's South Side must find a way to get along, speed the economic recovery — and satisfy activists in their parties who are in no mood for such compromising.

Will Obama cut taxes for the wealthy, a position he has opposed? Can Republicans really reduce spending? How can Democrats run a deeply divided Senate? How can Republicans manage their new House majority, which includes the small-government Tea Party faction? And who's lining up to challenge Obama in 2012?

Interviews with top Democrats and Republicans at the White House and in Congress, along with issues advocates and Washington analysts, revealed this likely dichotomy: Some little things probably can be resolved in bipartisan fashion. Bigger things may have to wait until after the 2012 presidential election.

"I do believe there is hope for civility," Obama said Wednesday, after Republicans gained at least 60 seats for a House majority and six in the Senate. "I do believe there is hope for progress."

"The president and I had a very pleasant conversation," Boehner said earlier in the day, recounting Obama's congratulatory phone call after Republicans clinched control of the House. "We agreed that we needed to … work together on behalf of the American people."

Whether they can remains to be seen. Here's a look at the dynamics from five perspectives:

Bill Clinton could provide example

A humbled president faced the press after losing scores of seats in Congress and admitted that "not enough people have felt more prosperous and more secure or believe we were meeting their desires for fundamental change."

That was Bill Clinton on Nov. 9, 1994. In the next two years, he worked with the GOP on issues from welfare to school uniforms, and fought it in a budget standoff that led to a government shutdown.

Both scenarios are possible now as Obama seeks to break bread with Boehner, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and Tea Party-influenced Republicans.

If he sticks with his principles on the economy, health care and financial regulation but is willing to "tweak" his policies, as he indicated Wednesday, Obama could succeed, much as Clinton did.

The first step? Maybe a Slurpee summit.

Stumping for Democrats near the end of this year's campaigns, Obama liked to quip that Republicans had driven the economy into a ditch and were drinking Slurpees while Democrats tried to push it out. Asked Wednesday whether he would have Boehner over for Slurpees, he responded, "I might serve — they're delicious drinks."

It will take more than that. The president suggested several areas of potential compromise, from banning earmarks in spending bills to promoting electric cars. Cut taxes for the wealthy? He said compromise is possible there, too.

"No one party will be able to dictate where we go from here," Obama said. "We must find common ground."

He's been a mediator before, going back to Harvard Law School and the streets of Chicago. "He has skills at bipartisanship," says presidential historian Fred Greenstein of Princeton University.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who led the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress, says Obama isn't in a position to dictate policy.

"Isn't it incumbent on the president to accept that this is a midcourse correction?" Gingrich asks, "and doesn't John Boehner, for the moment, speak for more Americans than Obama?"

In the meantime, the president can do things on his own. He jets off to four Asian nations Friday to discuss the global economy, trade and terrorism.

Big decisions on tax cuts, health care are looming

A day after sweeping into power in the House, Republican leaders focused on a top campaign theme of 2010: repealing the health care law passed by Congress earlier this year. During one of several appearances Wednesday, Boehner referred to the new law as a "monstrosity."

In reality, though, Republicans won't take control of the House or have the ability to chip away at health care until January. First, the current Congress is set to finish remaining 2010 business in a "lame duck" session that begins Nov. 15.

Republicans must sort out leadership posts — jockeying for a few top jobs began months ago — and decide on issues set to come up this month, such as the future of Bush-era income tax cuts and the status of gays in the military.

All of those decisions must be made with an eye toward conservative House members backed by the Tea Party movement who will take their seats in January. Boehner will have to juggle the interests of those members against those of more senior GOP lawmakers who have a history of compromising with Democrats.

"A lot of self-identified Tea Party voters came out and helped make these wins possible," says GOP strategist Ed Gillespie, who helped orchestrate the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress. "Voters are going to rightly watch to make sure Republicans do in office what they said they'd do."

The first test of the split between moderates and conservatives may come next year, when Congress will decide whether to raise the $14.3 trillion limit on how much the government can borrow.

Not approving it would be "suicidal" because it would put the country in a position of defaulting on its debt, says Robert Bixby of the Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog. But given that so many Republican candidates ran on reducing budget deficits, the vote is sure to be a point of contention.

Boehner, who worked with Massachusetts liberal senator Edward Kennedy on education, said he was unfazed by the challenge of bringing together the conservative and center wings of the caucus.

"What unites us as Republicans will be the agenda of the American people," he said. "I don't see any problems incorporating members of the Tea Party along with our party in the quest that's really the same: They want us to cut spending and focus on creating jobs in America."

Will newcomers' influence derail any compromising?

The Tea Party candidates who won House and Senate races this week arrive in Washington with a wary view not only of President Obama and Democrats but also of establishment Republicans.

In their victory speeches, Tea Party-backed Senate candidates Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky gave notice that they saw congressional Republicans as part of the big-spending, politics-as-usual problem they were elected to fix.

Boehner and McConnell said they looked forward to incorporating the new Tea Party troops in their ranks. But the Tea Party faithful say they want to redefine the GOP in the mode of their movement, including a stronger allegiance to fiscal discipline and limited government.

"What we need to do as Republicans is to recreate ourselves around that reform agenda," South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, the incumbent senator most closely aligned with the Tea Party movement, said in an interview Wednesday. "We've got to decide who we are as a party, and I think that process began yesterday."

Matt Kibbe, president of a Tea Party-affiliated group called FreedomWorks, identifies the top priorities as curbing spending and repealing the health care law Obama signed in March, perhaps by denying federal funds needed for implementation.

Obama suggested Wednesday that the White House and congressional Republicans could find common ground on a pared-down energy bill and renewal of the No Child Left Behind law, which ties federal funding to performance standards for schools. Yet many Tea Party candidates campaigned to reduce or eliminate the federal role in education.

The Tea Party movement faces other challenges, including addressing criticism that candidates boosted by the Tea Party in Colorado, Delaware and Nevada lost Senate races that more moderate nominees could have won. Former Bush White House speechwriter David Frum complained that "three ridiculously winnable Senate seats" were "thrown away."

Kibbe counters that, nationwide, there was "an incredible Republican sweep that was driven by Tea Party energy, by Tea Party ideas and Tea Party voters."

Some local Tea Party groups already are discussing what to do in the next election. Mentioned as potential targets for challenges in Republican primaries: Sens. Olympia Snowe of Maine, a moderate who frequently has been courted by the White House, and Orrin Hatch of Utah, a conservative who occasionally has worked across party lines on legislation.

Trying to get things done with gridlock in sight

As Senate Democrats prepare to return to Washington with a considerably smaller majority, leaders of both parties said they are eager to find compromise — but neither side was able to name many specific areas worth pursuing. Outside observers predict gridlock.

"The ball is in their court," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, putting the onus for cooperation on the handful of Tea Party-backed Republicans who will take office next year. "The American public expects us to work together. … Simply saying 'no,' as we've had in the past, won't bring jobs back."

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested the parties could work together on the $1.3 trillion budget deficit. A bipartisan commission appointed by Obama and congressional leaders is scheduled to release recommendations Dec. 1 on possible spending cuts, tax increases and changes to entitlement programs.

In the coming weeks, Democrats will be under pressure from advocacy groups to pass leftover policies through Congress before Republicans take control. Among those is a bill championed by Reid that would give some immigrants a chance to stay in the country if they spend two years in the military or college. Reid vowed to bring the measure up this month; that's welcome news for supporters, who acknowledge it would be harder to pass next year.

Senate Democrats won't wait until next year to lose votes. Republican Sen.-elect Mark Kirk of Illinois, chosen to fill out the remainder of Obama's Senate term, will be seated when lawmakers meet this month. He takes over for Sen. Roland Burris, a reliable vote for Democrats. Sen.-elect Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen.-elect Chris Coons, D-Del., also will take office then.

Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, suggests that both parties could use the next few weeks to find compromises before the new Congress is seated. After that, he predicts, "there's not going to be much legislation going through."

In the House, top Democrats kept a low profile Wednesday. Parties that lose big in elections often face leadership shakeups, but it was unclear whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would step down from leadership — or from Congress altogether.

"I'll have a conversation with my caucus, have a conversation with my family, pray over it and decide how to go forward," she told ABC News.

For Republicans, the scramble is officially on

Fresh talk of the need for bipartisan cooperation and new policy goals in the aftermath of Tuesday's elections will soon give way to presidential politics.

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum heads to the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state of New Hampshire today. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is dishing out advice about how to jump-start the economy. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour says he will now start to think about running for president. And 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin continues to take shots at the White House on Twitter.

The 2012 race for president is on.

A dozen or so emboldened potential GOP candidates will spend the next several months exploring the possibility of launching such a massive undertaking. The potential candidates need to determine whether they can generate the cash, staff and public support — and whether they and their families can summon the courage — for the grueling process.

Political strategists say some candidates likely will create exploratory committees this fall or early next year so they can raise some money to cover travel expenses and the like without committing to the race.

"Campaigns will start right after the first of the year," says Democratic strategist Bob Shrum.

GOP pollster Jon McHenry, however, predicts voters will get more of a break. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, for example, has said he will make a decision in March whether to run.

"I think the ideal for a lot of these folks would be to put it off until next summer," McHenry says. "But that's a lot easier if you're Mitt Romney and you've done this before. He can probably wait the longest of anybody."

Candidates have been positioning themselves for months. Palin, who endorsed dozens of Republican and Tea Party candidates in Tuesday's races, is poised to capitalize on those endorsements if she takes the leap. Among those she could call on for help in 2012: Nikki Haley, the candidate she endorsed for governor in the early-primary state of South Carolina, who won on Tuesday.

The dramatic power shift in Washington could continue in 2012, in both Congress and the Oval Office.

"I think we probably take the Senate in 2012, because you have so many Democratic seats up," said former Republican Colorado governor Bill Owens. "But it probably means that President Obama has a better chance to be reelected, because now there's power-sharing. Republicans are going to make mistakes, too."