At a post-election lunch for politicians and labor leaders, Democrats were savoring their victories, but also contemplating the tough choices awaiting progressives in Congress this month.
The luncheon at the Catholic Seafarer’s Center in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood was a time for Washington’s newest Democratic members in Congress to celebrate and thank their union supporters. Of the newcomers only Democrat Derek Kilmer was absent, having taken his family on a post-election vacation to Disneyland.
But Denny Heck, who won in the newly created 10th District, was there. “We’re feeling pretty good, some bizarre combination of elation and relief,” he said. “ And as soon as we’ve stopped being excited about it, we’ll get a good night’s sleep and then roll up our sleeves and go to work because there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Suzan DelBene, who won in Washington’s 1st District, was also in attendance. Her post-election honeymoon will be even shorter, since she’s getting sworn in next week. She won a special election to serve out Jay Inslee’s remaining term in Congress before starting the regular term in January. “My door’s open, once I figure out where my door is,” she said.
Representative Adam Smith, who was reelected in the 9th District, noted that DelBene will be thrown into the looming budget negotiations. “Suzan, you are extraordinarily lucky. You get to be sworn in right away and participate in the lame-duck session with the rest of us,” said Smith.
Those negotiations will involve almost every hot-button budget issue. With end-of-the-year deadlines looming, or the so-called fiscal cliff, Congress must decide whether Bush-era tax cuts should expire, whether government programs including defense should be cut dramatically, and whether programs like Social Security and Medicare should face changes as well.
Congressman Smith laid out the difficult choices facing progressives. He said he believes a budget can be reached that protects Social Security and Medicare. But he said while Democrats campaigned on letting tax cuts expire only for those making over $250,000, the truth is they’ll need to raise taxes on earners below that amount to make the numbers work.
“We can’t act like we can just raise taxes on people over $250,000, cut nothing and it’s all good,” Smith said. “It’s not. Doesn’t add up. Unless you want to make the case to me that the deficit doesn’t matter. And I’ll tell you, hundreds have tried, none have yet succeeded.”
One of the people who disagrees with Smith on this is Dave Freiboth, head of the King County Labor Council. “I think we have a fundamental difference on the deficit concerns, that’s the one fundamental issue I have with [Smith], and the need to deal with it in the short term.”
Freiboth says he’s fine with reversing the Bush-era tax cuts for incomes below $250,000. His biggest priority is protecting entitlements, which he calls earned benefits. But it’s clear from Smith’s preview that there will be sharp differences even among Democrats as the negotiations proceed. He says Democrats will need to agree to spending cuts in programs besides defense and to admit that there is no chance of a balanced budget in the short term.