WASHINGTON–Among Connecticut’s congressional delegation, Rep. John Larson has the biggest political pivot to make as his party prepares to cede power to a new Republican majority.
The 1st District Democrat may have sailed to a seventh term in the House and held on to his leadership job as the Democratic Caucus Chairman.
But he will soon preside over a smaller Democratic caucus. He’ll have to shed many of his congressional staff. And his party will go from playing an aggressive game of offense to an unpleasant game of defense.
The new political reality is sinking in quickly, even if the Republicans don’t officially take control until January.
On Monday, sitting in his Capitol Hill “hideaway” office-a coveted space he will soon lose-Larson girded for a difficult meeting at the White House over the volatile issue of the expiring Bush-era tax cuts.
Obama Administration officials and congressional Republicans were on the cusp of an agreement under which all the tax cuts would be extended for two years, including breaks for the wealthy which Democrats would like to see expire. In exchange, Republicans tentatively agreed to support a 13-month extension of unemployment benefits for long-term laid-off workers, along with a cut in payroll taxes for all workers, an expansion of the earned-income tax credit, and other measures.
Larson said that would be a bad deal, and one that would probably not get much support within the House Democratic caucus.
“This body is in no mood to take that,” he said. “I don’t see where the votes are in our caucus for this.”
All the same, Larson said he and other House Democrats were basically expecting to be told by their allies in the White House, “This is the best we can get” and pressed to go along.
That’s argument Larson doesn’t buy. He is fuming at the Senate leadership, which held show votes over the weekend in which they failed to overcome Republican opposition to two proposals, one extending the tax cuts only for those making under $250,000 and another for those making under $1 million.
He said that was a “gimpy” effort in which Democrats failed to force a real GOP filibuster and instead had a few hours of debate and then gave up.
“We’re making our case” that the GOP is for millionaires, while Democrats are for the middle class, he said. “The question is, are we really? There was no big struggle over this.”
The tax cut fight may well be a sign of things to come.
Asked about the Democrats agenda next year, Larson responded: “We’ll have our hands full protecting Medicare, Social Security and health reform.”
In the minority, he noted, “you’re not governing. You’re the loyal opposition.”
Indeed, he is now waiting to hear from the soon-to-be House Speaker John Boehner about his office budgets for next year. In the meantime, he has asked his entire staff to resign, anticipating serious cuts.
And he will lose his plush “hideaway” office, a stately room just off the Capitol Crypt, with a fireplace and a stunning view of the Washington Monument. Larson said he’s not sure yet if he will get a different Capitol office or if he’ll have to work from the regular House buildings across the street.
“My grandfather said it best: Peacock one day, feather duster the next,” Larson joked of his new status.
On a more serious note, he said he’s using the anticipated reshuffling of his staff to craft a new strategy for working in the minority. That will mean less focus on developing a legislative agenda that can pass the House and more focus on getting the Democrats’ message out, without the bully pulpit of the Speaker’s office.
Democrats will still try to play offense on some issues, mostly jobs and the economy.
“But it’s more about getting out there, staking out our positions, messaging along those lines, and then having rapid response,” Larson said. “We still have the White House we can work with and the Senate, to a lesser or greater degree.”
If there was anything Larson seemed to relish about moving into the minority, it’s watching House Republicans try to wield their new-found power, gained on the strength of conservative Tea Party candidates.
Indeed, he said one area where Democrats planned to be aggressive was trying to hold the Republicans’ “feet to the fire” on their campaign promises, such as reining in the federal deficit.
“They have a huge majority now. They’ve got to be able to deliver on all their promises,” he said. “They find themselves in a not too dissimilar position that we were in–we could deliver, but the Senate couldn’t.”