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2016 politics on display as Congress ends term

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Thursday, January 3, 2013 - 8:00 am

WASHINGTON — Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP's 2012 vice presidential candidate, voted for the "fiscal cliff" compromise that raised taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul voted against it. And Vice President Joe Biden helped broker the deal with GOP leaders in the Senate.

As Congress closed out its term this week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie accused fellow Republicans of showing "callous indifference to the suffering of the people of my state" by not holding a vote on Superstorm Sandy aid. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo joined him in the rebuke.

And Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton drew headlines for a different reason after being hospitalized for a blood clot in her head, an illness that raised questions about the Democrat's political future.

While the next presidential primary voting is still three years away, the political implications of the actions and whereabouts of the potential field of 2016 candidates hung over extraordinary year-end Washington drama.

The fiscal cliff vote forced those in Congress who are eyeing presidential runs to stake out early positions which signal how they may be aligning themselves — and which could come back to haunt them should they move forward.

The intense legislative debate also gave would-be candidates involved in them an opportunity to command the spotlight while rivals were on the sidelines. And the weeks of gridlock over the looming fiscal cliff of big tax increases and spending cuts provided governors weighing bids a chance to cast themselves as outsiders and, perhaps, start building a case for taming Washington paralysis.

For Republican White House hopefuls in Congress, the votes on the compromise that raised taxes on the wealthiest Americans could help frame future presidential primary debates over the debt ceiling, tax code reforms and how to fund government and entitlement programs. The party has rejected tax increases for more than two decades but now finds itself trying to regroup after President Barack Obama's re-election and dealing with a struggle between Republicans who want to take a more pragmatic tax approach and tea party loyalists advocating a firm anti-tax position.

"The American people chose divided government. As elected officials, we have a duty to apply our principles to the realities of governing," Ryan said after joining with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in support of the bill, putting him in the minority of the GOP caucus and against the tea party.

Ryan may be spared some political fallout from the right, given that Republican activist Grover Norquist, who for years has pushed GOP lawmakers to pledge not to raise taxes, and several other conservative heavyweights supported the bill, including Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn and Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, the former head of the anti-tax Club for Growth.

Two other potential 2016 presidential candidates drew praise from conservative opponents of the measure for voting to refuse tax increases.

Rubio, a prominent Hispanic lawmaker in a party trying to connect with Latino voters, called the legislation an impediment to "rapid economic growth and job creation." The Florida senator also said it failed to control runaway debt. Paul, the son of GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul, opposed the bill because of the combination of spending and tax increases. The Kentucky senator said: "We're going to raise taxes and we're going to raise spending. Tell me what's good about that?"

On the Democratic side, Biden played a major role in the deal-making, with his late-night talks with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell leading to the compromise plan. It was a reminder of the former Delaware senator's legislative skills, which could either impress Democratic primary voters or anger liberals who may view the deal as too much of a compromise with Republicans.

As the vice president helped broker a deal, it was hard for Democrats to overlook where Clinton, the party's formidable potential contender, was: She revealed she was being treated in a New York hospital for a blood clot in her head that formed after she suffered a concussion during a fainting spell in early December. She was released from the hospital Wednesday and doctors said they were confident she would make a full recovery. But the extended illness made it more likely that Clinton, 65, would face scrutiny over her health should she run.

Beyond Washington, two prominent Northeast governors weighed in on Congress' year-end wrangling, and wasted little time assailing the House GOP leadership over hurricane relief.

Christie said his state had been betrayed by his fellow Republicans in the House, who refused to bring a Superstorm Sandy aid package to a vote, adding, "America deserves better than just another example of a government that has forgotten who they are there to serve and why."

Cuomo, a Democrat long considered by party insiders to be a possible White House candidate, issued a joint statement with Christie condemning the "inaction and indifference" by the House. "The people of our states can no longer afford to wait while politicians in Washington play games," they said. House Republicans said after Christie's blistering news conference that they would hold a vote Friday for $9 billion for the national flood insurance program and another on Jan. 15 for a remaining $51 billion in the relief package.

It's impossible to say whether this week's votes and comments will become 2016 campaign fodder. But they certainly give hints about how possible candidates are testing the waters — and how their positions are faring with certain parts of the electorate.

"It strikes me that Ryan is thinking he wants to be the establishment candidate," said Doug Gross, an Iowa Republican who chaired Mitt Romney's 2008 campaign in the state. Conservatives may agree — and not look kindly on that. As Erick Erickson, a conservative commentator and the editor of RedState.com, put it on Twitter, "Thus ends the Paul Ryan 2016 Presidential Exploratory Committee."

Still, some Republicans dismissed any fallout from their candidates' votes.

"I don't ultimately think this one vote will hurt any of them," said Sara Taylor Fagen, a Republican strategist. "But to some degree it probably forecasts their voting patterns for the future."