WASHINGTON – Lawmakers talk about tough votes they take in their careers, but Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Lone Tree) did not say his vote on the “fiscal cliff” would be one of them when he voted for the Budget Control Act in August 2011.
The legislation required Washington to find $4 trillion in spending cuts and tax hikes by the end of 2012 or face automatic, across-the-board spending reductions and steep tax hikes.
On the day of the vote, Gallup’s daily tracking polls showed that 43 percent of Americans approved of President Obama’s job performance and 48 percent disapproved.
A week and a half earlier, Public Policy Polling, a liberal-leaning survey organization, ran a headline on its website “Obama in Perilous Shape” because the president was tied 45-45 with Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in a hypothetical presidential match-up.
Obama’s falling poll numbers were not the only things that favored Coffman. The Budget Control Act allowed lawmakers to reach an agreement by the end of 2012, roughly two months after the elections, a period in which retiring and defeated members can vote without regard to constituents’ demands and elected members do not need to face the voters for another 20 months.
After Coffman cast his vote for the bill, his office released a statement in which he praised the agreement. Although the Marine Corps combat veteran acknowledged the bill was a mere battle in a larger war against deficit spending, he said it represented a “victory for conservatives because it reduces spending without increasing taxes.”
Sixteen months later, Coffman, 57, faces an altered political landscape. Instead of looking forward to work with President Romney, he must work with President Obama. Instead of thinking he might outperform Obama in his congressional district in the Denver suburbs, he ran behind him, and won his race by a mere 6,992 votes in a newly configured and more heavily Democratic district.
Democratic lawmakers, emboldened by the results of the November elections, see little need to compromise with their Republican counterparts over tax rates that were reduced in 2001 and 2003 – rates that are due to increase at the end of the year if no deal is reached.
Buoyed by November’s election results, many Congressional Democrats now believe they have a mandate to raise taxes.
“They’re going to have to accept that we won the election,” Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Denver), a chief deputy whip, said in an interview of House Republicans.
From the left, Coffman faces pressure to raise the top marginal income tax rate, and oppose reforms to rapidly expanding federal entitlement spending on programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
Last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee attacked Coffman as one of 40 Republican “hostage takers” because he has not signed a discharge petition that would sidestep normal House procedures and force a vote on extending the Bush-era tax rates for high-income earners. As part of that campaign, the DCCC is running robo calls to constituents in Coffman’s district attacking the lawmaker.
If the number of phone calls to Coffman’s office in Washington is an indication, the campaign is stirring up activism among his constituents. Of the 25 to 30 calls his office receives a day about the fiscal-cliff negotiations, most echo the DCCC’s talking points, said Lauren Lewis, Coffman’s scheduler.
Coffman’s Republican colleagues have taken notice of the DCCC’s campaign against Republicans who represent districts that were carried by President Obama and other potentially vulnerable members.
Rep. Cory Gardner of Yuma said at their closed-door caucus meeting Wednesday, House Republicans mentioned that the DCCC was targeting some of those in the room for their votes on the fiscal cliff.
“I think there’s a recognition that Democrats are using it as a political hammer, but Mike Coffman realizes that Congress controls the purse strings,” Gardner said.
From the right, Coffman faces pressure to oppose tax increases, support reforms to expensive entitlement programs – which now constitute nearly two-thirds of all federal spending – and reduce the record national debt, which now exceeds $16 trillion.
Many conservative callers to his Washington office insist that all of the current tax rates should be maintained for all taxpayers, including those in top brackets.
“They want Mike to stand firm on … no tax increases at all,” Lewis said.
If Congress is unable to reach a deal, all marginal income tax rates go up on January 1.
The fiscal-cliff negotiations are different from those of typical tax negotiations on Capitol Hill and state houses, but some on Capitol Hill say many conservatives are unaware of this difference.
“I think these callers believe House Republicans have a lot of leverage: they tell us to stand firm, stand united,” Catherine Mortensen, communications director for Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs, said in an interview.
Nathan O. Gonzalez, deputy political editor of the Rothenberg Politcal Report, said politically vulnerable Republicans like Coffman will need to show their constituents that a deal will benefit them.
“By voting for the bill, whether it’s voting for tax increases or whatever, politicians’ careers are in jeopardy, so they have to give their constituents something they can take back to their districts,” Gonzalez said.
Then again, Coffman might face a primary challenge from the right if he votes for an agreement that includes any tax increase.
“The Republican establishment is not well thought of, so someone might say, ‘I don’t think much of this new deal. Why don’t I run?,’” Gonzalez added.
Coffman has not staked out a public position on his preferred mix of tax and spending cuts. Yet he has written about a key part of the fiscal cliff negotiations.
In an op-ed that appeared in the pages of the Centennial Citizen ten days after the election, Coffman condemned sequestration, which required an automatic 9.4 percent reduction in all Pentagon spending except for military personnel’s salaries and benefits.
“The budget-gutting policies of ‘sequestration,’” he wrote, “pose a serious threat to our national security. They represent a haphazard and thoughtless approach to cutting the national budget that was designed to force action, not to be actual policy.”