WASHINGTON — A midterm campaign that has turned heavily on the issue of the mounting federal debt is likely to yield a government even more split over what to do about it, people in both parties say, with diminished Democrats and reinforced Republicans confronting internal divisions even as they dig in against the other side.
In the weeks after the Nov. 2 elections, the White House and a lame-duck Congress will face immediate decisions testing the balance of power — on extending the Bush-era tax rates, approving overdue spending bills to keep the government operating and, possibly, debating the recommendations that President Barack Obama has directed a bipartisan debt-reduction commission to offer by December.
The report of the 18-member commission, which includes a dozen senior members of Congress, six from each party, will help determine whether a bipartisan consensus exists to deal with the unsustainable combination of fast-growing entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare and inadequate tax revenues.
The group has delayed making decisions until after the election, to avoid leaks that would become campaign fodder, but even some of its members doubt they can muster the 14 votes needed to send a package to Congress for a vote; at best they hope options left on the table, or agreed to by the chairmen — Erskine B. Bowles, a White House chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, and Alan K. Simpson, the former Republican Senate leader from Wyoming — will find support in the spending-and-tax debates.
In interviews, a number of Democrats and Republicans agreed on one thing: For all the pre-election talk that a divided government could force the parties to work together, especially on cutting annual deficits, the opposite could just as well be true.
Democrats are certain to lose a number of seats and perhaps their majorities; most of the casualties will be fiscally conservative Democrats from Republican-leaning areas. That will leave a smaller, more solidly liberal caucus less inclined to support cost-saving changes in future Social Security benefits, for example.
Republicans’ ranks will almost certainly be strengthened by a wave of conservatives, including Tea Party loyalists, who are opposed to raising any taxes and to compromising with Democrats generally — a stand that congressional Republican leaders have adopted. And incumbents otherwise inclined to make deals are now wary,
Republicans say privately, mindful of colleagues who lost primary challenges from Tea Party candidates.
Both parties also face internal rifts that could hinder any grand bargain to reduce the annual deficits adding to the accumulated debt, which by decade’s end will reach economically dangerous levels as more retirees claim Medicare and Social Security.