St. Charles Herald-Guide

Cliff hanging resumes in D.C.

Special to the Herald-Guide - January 11, 2013

By John Maginnis
With one fiscal cliff averted and more on the horizon, the new Congress takes over with the seats still warm and feelings still hard from the old one. The hostilities just carried over, with the spirit of compromise gone already and positions dug in ever deeper as the next deadlines on the debt ceiling and automatic spending cuts approach. In the next round of cliff-hanging, what roles will Louisiana’s senators and representatives play, and how will the outcomes affect their politics?

For Louisiana politics, the key vote in the cliff crisis was Sen. David Vitter’s for the deal, which the upper chamber passed 89-8. Though it was not Vitter’s intention, his vote did give some cover back home to Sen. Mary Landrieu, as three potential challengers to her 2014 re-election-—Reps. Bill Cassidy, John Fleming and Jeff Landry-—voted no.

Going forward, the two senators are bound to part company on the debt and spending showdowns, leaving Landrieu exposed the more she votes with fellow Democrats and President Barack Obama. She could draw the line against possible Democratic proposals to end energy industry tax breaks. Beyond that, her best hope could lie in another bipartisan gang of however many emerging to offer a middle position and to give her some separation from the president.

Vitter’s cliff vote also was interesting because he stayed solidly within the fold of GOP senators. There was a time when he may easily have joined the GOP dissidents. In 2008, he was among the first Republican senators to break with the Bush Administration by speaking out against the Wall Street and General Motors bailouts, as though he could see the tea party of 2010 coming.

Now he has chosen to be a team player, as he becomes the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee and the newly chosen deputy whip. Even while taking the hard party line against the Democrats on big fiscal issues, he will continue to develop a bipartisan working relationship with his committee chairwoman, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, in fashioning big infrastructure spending bills. Vitter will be pressing for entitlement reform while doing all he can to steer more money back home for flood control projects, port improvements and the next highway bill.

The lone Republican in the state’s House delegation to vote for the cliff-fix deal, Rep. Rodney Alexander of Quitman took some criticism in his 5th District, but not enough to threaten him on the right, say politicos in the region. Unlike other colleagues among the one-third of Republicans voting for the bill, he doesn’t face the threat of being "primaried" by a conservative GOP challenger, due to the lack of closed party primaries in the state.

Alexander stuck with the embattled leadership as he moves up the ladder himself on the Appropriations Committee. He is the new chairman of Legislative Branch Subcommittee, with jurisdiction over the Capitol Police, the Library of Congress and the Botanical Garden, among other institutions inside the Beltway. Not exactly a high-powered panel, but it’s one more seniority step for the six-term congressman, and one more reason to vote with the leadership on the big issues ahead.

Having beat back former colleague and tea party darling Jeff Landry, Rep. Charles Boustany of Lafayette moved quickly to shore up his conservative support by co-sponsoring a new balanced budget constitutional amendment on the first day of the new Congress. As much as he claims to be close to Speaker John Boehner, R-Oh., he is likely to keep his distance from his friend in the coming months.

The fiscal crisis had to be resolved in the Democratic-controlled Senate because of the ideological split among House Republicans. Rebuffed by his own members on a critical vote, a weakened Speaker Boehner faces a brewing rebellion within his caucus that could undermine his leadership.

The fluid and possibly unstable situation puts Rep. Steve Scalise of Metairie in an interesting position as the newly elected chairman of the Republican Study Committee, consisting of caucus conservatives. He could end up both leading the charge for more spending cuts while also bridging the gap between the leadership and conservative Republicans. It’s not a bad spot for a young but seasoned Louisiana politician to be in when the next deal needs to be made.