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Election year makes Washington even more confusing

By Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 4:29 PM EST, Wed January 15, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: The House easily approves a federal budget through September
  • How can there be a budget deal and a fight over debt at the same time?
  • Old battles continue over unemployment insurance and immigration reform
  • Republicans want Obamacare to be the main issue in November

Washington (CNN) -- Deciphering election-year politics in Washington is like viewing an impressionist painting -- things that are blurry up close get clearer when you stand back for a broader look.

How else do you explain a full-blown spending measure poised to pass Congress while a partisan showdown looms over increasing how much the federal government can borrow to pay its bills?

Despite the ballyhooed bipartisanship of the compromise spending plan, deep enmity remains over other high-profile issues such as immigration reform and Obamacare.

Even matters that had previously sailed through the legislative wrangling, such as extending long-term unemployment benefits, remain stalled by political intransigence.

Congressional elections in November add to the impressionistic prism required to fully understand what is going on. Here are some of the major issues as described through that prism:

Government spending

At long last, a respite from the seemingly endless budget brinksmanship of the past two years.

A compromise worked out late last year by the leaders of the House and Senate budget committees -- Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington -- set the parameters for the $1.1 trillion spending measure that easily passed the House on Wednesday and now is expected to win Senate approval.

Such agreement in the heightened political environment of an election year seems antithetical, until you consider the benefits to both sides.

Polls show record public dissatisfaction with Congress for dysfunction that has repeatedly failed to pass a budget or spending bills, instead extending previous appropriations levels time after time.

In addition, Republicans got hammered for forcing a government shutdown last year by linking spending approval to conservative efforts to dismantle President Barack Obama's signature health care reforms.

Those two factors combine to motivate legislators in both parties to temporarily sideline for now their ideological wars over the size and cost of government, at least in terms of spending.

Debt ceiling

The issue of how much the government can borrow to pay bills run up in part by congressionally approved spending is another matter.

Republicans insist they will need concessions in the form of some kind of spending reductions to agree to increase the federal debt ceiling when the current borrowing limit is reached in March.

With Obama saying he won't negotiate over upholding the full faith and credit of the United States, the matter appears headed to another episode of brinkmanship that the public hates.

However, Republicans know their conservative base hates the concept of increased national debt even more, so picking this fight in an election year makes sense for GOP candidates in safe districts.

The calculus could change if the impasse results in an unprecedented U.S. default that shoots up interest rates and damages the nation's credit rating.

Just the notion of a possible default in a similar debt ceiling fight in 2011 caused the first-ever downgrade of the U.S. credit rating.

Unemployment insurance

More than 1 million Americans lost their long-term jobless benefits in late December when Congress was unable to agree on an extension.

In the Senate this week, Democrats and Republicans continued their dysfunctional political dance over the issue.

A GOP filibuster blocked separate proposals to extend benefits for almost a year or just three months, with the measures failing to clear procedural votes on Tuesday after apparently fruitless negotiations between Democratic leaders and a handful of Republicans.

On the surface, the question involves whether the additional cost of the extended benefits should be offset by spending cuts elsewhere, but there is more to it than that.

Conservative Republicans want to scale back jobless benefits in the wake of the Great Recession as part of overall austerity moves to reduce the nation's chronic federal deficits and debt.

"Unfortunately, instead of helping to create jobs, the President is focused on making it easier to live without one," House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said Wednesday.

Democrats know they can portray the GOP opposition as heartless rejection of needed benefits, and therefore are happy to hold "show" votes on the matter that they can use to attack Republicans in upcoming election campaigns.

Hence the two procedural votes Tuesday that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid knew his Democrats would lose.

According to a Quinnipiac University survey released last week, voters supported by a 58%-37% margin extending unemployment benefits for three months. However, the poll showed a majority of Republicans opposed the extension, while most Democrats and independents supported it.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky argued Democrats were purposely trying to scuttle the bill so they could blame Republicans for blocking benefits.

Immigration reform

Obama and Democrats want the House to take up a major Senate-passed immigration measure that would provide a pathway to legal status for millions of immigrants living illegally in the country.

Some Republicans also want to pass an immigration reform bill because they know their party lacks support from the nation's largest minority demographic group -- Hispanic Americans.

In the 2012 presidential vote, Obama got overwhelming support from Hispanic Americans that helped him win re-election. Analysts warn that a GOP failure to cut into the Democratic advantage with Latino voters portends an inability to reclaim the White House any time soon.

However, conservative Republicans oppose the Senate immigration plan as a form of amnesty for immigrants who unlawfully entered the country.

With conservative groups wielding influence in GOP primaries by backing anti-immigration reform candidates against incumbents, the chances are slim that the House will pass the Senate measure.

Obamacare

Republicans will continue their relentless attempts to undermine the 2010 Affordable Care Act, but they failed to stop it before full implementation occurred on January 1.

The appropriations bill expected to pass this week includes funding for the health care reforms, ending for now the GOP strategy of cutting off money for Obamacare.

Nevertheless, the issue will be big in November with Republicans and their conservative backers attacking Democrats who pushed the reforms through Congress without any GOP votes.

Attack ads against Democratic candidates already have started, funded by conservative groups, and the Republican National Committee has made clear it will hammer Obamacare all year.

The botched rollout of the Obamacare website in October fit the Republican narrative that the reforms amounted to big government run amok.

Obama and Democrats hope that full implementation of the reforms eases public opposition and concerns expressed in polling, making the issue a benefit instead of a detriment by the time voters decide in November.

CNN's Lisa Desjardins and Virginia Nicolaidis contributed to this report.

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