WASHINGTON — Two years ago, the junior senator from Illinois and president-elect declared that change had come to America.
Tuesday night, change came again — in a big way — sweeping Republicans to power in the reins of the House of Representatives but also handing them the responsibility of taking tough votes that will force them to either raise taxes, lay out draconian cuts or temporarily back off campaign promises on balancing the budget.
The crest of that GOP wave crashed in the Northland, where Republican Navy veteran and political novice Chip Cravaack unseated long-time Iron Range Democrat Jim Oberstar, the chairman of the powerful House Transportation Committee who had served for 18 terms without so much as even one close race.
Inasmuch as it was the toughest night of Oberstar’s political career, it was also the best night for Rep. John Kline, who will now likely be elevated to the chairmanship of the powerful Education and Labor Committee, a panel whose fingers reach into everything from No Child Left Behind to the stimulus, financial regulation and even health care reform.
It was a big night too for Rep. Michele Bachmann, the founder of the House Tea Party Caucus who is now being mentioned as a serious contender for a spot in the GOP leadership.
Meanwhile, Minnesota will lose the chairmanship of two committees just before session in which they stand to pass sweeping multi-year legislation.
One wonders how the White House and Senate Democrats feel now about stalling Oberstar out of what was to have been his signature achievement: A multi-year surface transportation bill that dramatically increased the nation’s investment in mass transit while fundamentally overhauling the way America pays its transportation bills.
Now, that legislation will be written in the House by a Republican.
Rep. Collin Peterson will also lose the gavel of the Agriculture Committee just as work on the 2012 Farm Bill was set to begin, though as ranking member of the panel he’ll still have a large say in the final legislation.
The White House has remained silent so far, though President Obama will hold a news conference Wednesday at noon. Top of his agenda will be answering a simple question: Now what?
Republicans ready for ‘second chance’
The presumptive House Speaker, John Boehner of Ohio, called the national GOP surge “a repudiation of Washington, a repudiation of big government, and a repudiation of politicians who refuse to listen to the people.”
Yet Boehner cautioned that this was not a time for celebration. It was, said he, a second chance for Republicans to act on their conservative principles. It was a sentiment echoed around the country.
Florida Senator-Elect Marco Rubio, who ran to the right of most Republicans in the Senate, said the GOP must understand what the voters’ mandate actually is.
“We make a great mistake if we think that these results are an embrace of the Republican Party,” Rubio said. “They aren’t. They’re a second chance.”
GOP campaigns were nearly all about fiscal conservatism and reducing the size and scope of government – and tough votes loom on the nation’s fiscal policies.
Democrats haven’t passed a single appropriations bill, and the pre-election thought among Dem staffers was that if they lost big they’d punt all of them to a Republican House. A $1.3 trillion deficit simply cannot be cut through efficiencies, reducing spending to 2006 levels or banning earmarks — you’d actually have to slash entitlements and defense spending to balance the budget in Year One – meaning a bunch of Republicans who ran on a platform of balanced budgets will have to stomach a deficit budget that increases the national debt.
These are not issues that can be punted to the Senate either — constitutionally these spending bills must begin in the House.
Speaking of… Sometime in the spring, probably March, the national debt will reach the current debt ceiling of $14.3 trillion. If a GOP-led House refuses to take a painful vote to increase the debt ceiling, the U.S. will default on its debt for the first time in history. Eric Cantor, the number two Republican in the House, declined to commit to an extension when pressed Tuesday evening by MSNBC.
Republicans have also promised their electorate that they’ll hold votes on repealing health care reform and repealing unspent stimulus dollars – though there’s no way they’ve got enough to override a presidential veto and such things probably wouldn’t even come up in the Senate.
Beyond that comes the key question: After four years in opposition, how do Republicans plan on running the House?
“Just being angry and saying no to everything is not a governing philosophy,” said Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, who now heads to the minority side of the aisle. “Now I want to see if they can actually help govern this country.”
Outside the 8th, House races stay on script
While Cravaack will be replacing Oberstar in Washington, the rest of the night in Minnesota went according to form.
1st District – Until a guy named Cravaack burst onto the scene in October, Rep. Tim Walz had been the number one target of Republicans in Minnesota. And while the race was a bit closer than the last polls anticipated, Walz wound up defeating state Rep. Randy Demmer here – albeit with a vote total under 50 percent.
2nd District – Rep. John Kline beat back a spirited challenge from Shelley Madore and will now be considered the heavy favorite to lead the powerful Education and Labor Committee in the House. Kline, who has a history of winning by solid-but-not-spectacular margins, crested 60 percent for the first time in his Congressional career.
3rd District – Rep. Erik Paulsen held off challenger Jim Meffert by about 20 points. It was a big win for Paulsen, whose margin of victory in a swing district closely tracked the margin Democrats achieved in the much more partisan 4th District.
4th District – Speaking of… Rep. Betty McCollum will return as the sole appropriator in the Minnesota delegation, defeating Teresa Collett.
5th District – The would-be leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Rep. Keith Ellison, was rewarded with a third term after holding off the YouTube ad wonder Joel Demos. Tea Party independent Lynne Torgerson, who made some headlines from going after Ellison’s Muslim faith, was a non-factor at just three percent.
6th District – Rep. Michele Bachmann topped challenger Tarryl Clark in the most expensive race in House history. More than $16 million was raised in the 6th, including record-breaking sums from both the challenger and the victorious incumbent.
7th District – Rep. Collin Peterson faced in Lee Byberg the stiffest challenge he’d had since 1994. While Peterson was held to roughly 55 percent of the vote – his lowest percentage since ’94 – it has to be considered a banner night for him being sandwiched between GOP victories in the Dakotas and Minnesota’s upset-minded 8th District.