WASHINGTON — Republicans say they will follow "the people’s priorities" when they gain power on Capitol Hill next month. Yet when it came to tax cuts for the wealthy and other top issues that dominated the just concluded lame-duck Congress, the GOP either defied what most Americans want or followed their will only after grudging, drawn-out battles.
Relentlessly focused on the next election, politicians are usually loath to act against voter sentiment. Still, the post-election weeks of the 111th Congress saw battles in which Washington seemed oblivious to the direction most people wanted lawmakers to take, as measured by public opinion polls. These included:
• Congress’ approval of a compromise between President Barack Obama and congressional GOP leaders renewing expiring tax cuts for everyone, despite broad public opposition to including people earning over $250,000. An Associated Press-CNBC Poll in late November found only 34 percent wanted taxes reduced for the richest Americans.
• Democrats’ struggle before Congress finally repealed the prohibition against gays serving openly in the military. An ABC News-Washington Post poll this month showed 77 percent favored ending the ban, consistent with other polls, and a Pentagon survey of thousands of servicemen and women found 7 in 10 supporting the move or saying it wouldn’t hurt.
• The failure of Democrats to approve the Dream Act, which would have helped many young illegal immigrants become citizens if they attend college or join the military. A Gallup Poll this month found 54 percent support for the measure.
• Roadblocks the Obama administration faced before ultimately persuading the Senate to ratify a new nuclear treaty with Russia, even as an AP-GfK Poll last month showed 67 percent backing Senate approval of the START pact.
On each, Republicans led the effort to oppose policies that most people support, though Obama and many Democrats eventually joined them to back tax cuts for upper-income families. Capitalizing on the leverage they gained by winning House control and extra Senate seats on Election Day, the GOP used Senate procedures to force Democrats to get large majorities to prevail. In the case of START, GOP leaders forced delays that in the end were not successful at denying Obama and Democrats the two-thirds Senate majority that the Constitution requires to ratify a treaty.
The GOP’s stance was striking for a party that spent much of the 2010 congressional campaign accusing Democrats of ignoring the public’s will, a sentiment echoed by Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, expected to be the next House speaker.
"Beginning in January, the House is going to become the outpost in Washington for the American people and their desire for a smaller, less-costly and more accountable government," Boehner said. "The president’s agenda may be the agenda of Washington, but beginning Jan. 5th the agenda of this House will be the agenda of the American people. The people’s priorities will be our priorities."
On some of the final issues, Obama and Congress listened to what most people want.
While polls show wide concern about record budget deficits, people are leery of addressing the problem by raising taxes or cutting cherished programs like Social Security or Medicare. Politicians went nowhere near such unpopular proposals. In a token move that would have little budget impact, Obama proposed freezing federal workers’ salaries, which most people support, and Congress quickly agreed.
On other matters, lawmakers were driven more by what each party’s strongest supporters wanted, according to analysts on both sides.
"This is definitely a listen-to-your-base lame-duck session," said GOP pollster Glen Bolger.
On the lame duck’s marquee issue, Obama and Republican leaders reached a deal to retain everyone’s tax cuts — a GOP demand — for two more years, and to extend unemployment benefits to millions of people whose coverage was expiring, a priority of Democrats and the administration.
Polls by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center and ABC News-Washington Post showed at least 6 in 10 Americans supported that compromise, making the deal easier for many Democrats to back.
But most Democrats opposed giving the tax breaks to the highest-earning Americans, a position that an AP-CNBC poll showed was shared by nearly 2 in 3 people, including 8 in 10 Democrats. In the end, though, many of them were reluctant to reject the compromise, knowing its defeat would mean they had capped 2010 by voting to let peoples’ taxes rise in January.
"It says, ‘We don’t want to be seen as the ones who raise taxes for everyone,’" Democratic pollster Dave Beattie said of why many Democratic lawmakers backed down and supported the tax deal.
It was easy for most Republicans to support the tax legislation, since a majority of their supporters favor upper-income tax cuts.
Many ardent conservatives oppose a new nuclear pact with Russia, eased immigration restrictions and repeal of the "don’t ask, don’t tell" ban against military service by openly gay people. That gave GOP lawmakers leeway to oppose those measures, despite overall public support for them.
"These are red-meat Republican issues," said Timothy Nokken, a political science professor at Texas Tech University who studies Congress.
Also making opposition easier for Republicans was their realization that despite the broad backing those issues have, they don’t drive the votes of many people.
"Even though there is support for START and repeal of ‘don’t ask don’t tell,’ these are not primary core issues for voters, and there’s little harm that could come to them by opposing those two," said Republican consultant Steve Lombardo.