Friday, January 3, 2014

A House Divided: Midnight Appointments


The United States welcomed their President-Elect Lisa Murkowski with deafening cheers as she came upon the state to deliver her acceptance speech to the crowd gathered in Anchorage, Alaska.

"I admire all of you that braved the chilly winds of an Alaskan winter to wait for this announcement. Minutes ago, Governor O'Malley called me to congratulate me for my victory, and he gives me his best wishes in taking up the leadership of this nation.  I want to thank him for being an admirable competitor, and I couldn't have asked for anybody better to compete against to win over the American public. I also want to thank Senator Ayotte for being my running mate, and being an invaluable asset to the campaign.

I am here to tell you that I am very excited to announce the victory of myself and and Vice President-Elect Ayotte tonight, and that the winter of American partisanship and deadlock is over!"

The crowd was excited, and moment the moment that ended the election eerily mirrored the one which started it back in October in Milwaukee. One thing that was clear is that Murkowski wanted to foster compromise and avoid deadlocks and shutdowns that had happened all too frequently in the Obama administration. She made it clear that the "cogs of government would grind once again."

A part of getting the cogs grinding again was getting some fresh faces in Congress. With the Senate Democrats having been beheaded by the defeat of Majority Leader Reid in the election, they were out in force and ready to pounce to take up the position. The Majority Leader would practically become the most powerful and influential Democrat in the country, with the Speakership and Presidency being controlled by the Republican Party. They wanted to have somebody who was charismatic and passionate about policies that they supported and would keep the agenda of the center-left in our Federal government.

The first choice that came up, and a fairly obvious one, was current Majority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois. He announced his intent to fill the position on November 11, and wanted to emphasize carrying on Reid's legacy in the Senate by doing whatever was necessary to stop obstructionism in the Senate. However, a number of Senators rose to the occasion to challenge him: Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Alison Grimes of Kentucky, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Notably, all of these people except Bennet were considered to be liberal lions of a sort, almost like how Ted Kennedy was looked up to as a part of the Democratic Party. There were hopes that the new Majority Leader and President Murkowski could work together as well as Kennedy and President Bush did.

On the Republican side of things, the moderate versus conservative division made itself painfully evident. Senator Ted Cruz made it clear that he was challenging current Minority Leader John Cornyn for his position, stating that he has been far too willing to accommodate the interests of liberals and has not stuck up for conservative values on a number of occasions. In the House, some moderates were considering challenging Speaker Eric Cantor, who has been a fairly strong conservative during the duration of his time as Majority Leader and as Speaker for nearly two years after replacing Speaker John Boehner in January of 2015.

Another important question at this time was about outgoing President Obama's legacy. He broke glass celings, as an African-American raised by a single mom in a middle class family. Although it may never be known how the race factor truly played in electing him, he defeated Senator McCain by a significant margin in 2008 and was reelected by a lesser margin in 2012 over former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Many political analysts looked at the results of the 2015 election with the lens of approval of President Obama's job, and based on that view, he was not approved of by a majority. One of his biggest legislative accomplishments are also one of his most controversial: the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. It was tough to pass in his first term, and had an infamously rocky implementation late 2013. As 2014 progressed, many of the major kinks were worked out, and results started to show. One of the major outcomes for the ACA was in late 2014, when the Supreme Court voted 5-4 that a requirement for employers to pay for birth control was constitutional on the basis of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment: they stated that recognizing employers exempt from providing birth control due to religious reasons was akin to respecting an establishment of religion.

It is somewhat assured that Obama will be remembered fairly fondly among many liberals. He helped push for LGBT rights throughout his terms, seeing the Supreme Court overrule DOMA and Proposition 8. It is also assured that conservative's will continue to attach a negative stigma to his name. Notable was the fact that at that point he had filled four seats on the Supreme Court, which was an unprecedented number. The President had one last major chance to leave a legacy through his fifth, and final Supreme Court appointment due to the retirement of Justice Stephen Breyer, allowing him to become the first President to appoint a majority of seats on the Supreme Court since Washington in the Constitution's inception.

Many people saw the retirement of Justice Breyer as politically motivated: being over 80 years old meant that there was a chance that he could be forced to retire soon, and he found it better to let President Obama replace him with a like minded liberal rather than let President Murkowksi replace him with a conservative. President Obama chose former California Attorney General Kamala Harris to fill his position on the court, calling her the best person to execute the legacy of Justice Breyer. The Roberts Court was now being satirically referred to as the Obama Court.

President Obama wasn't the only one in the spotlight anymore: President-Elect Murkowski's statements and choices were viewed as equally important. After all, she did have the responsibility of coming up with Cabinet appointees. In fulfilling her last month in her role as Senator, she urged Senate Republicans not to filibuster Harris' nomination in order to move past an era of obstructionism and also due to the fact that it would not fundamentally change the Court balance. Harris was approved to the Supreme Court by a party line 52-48 majority just before Congress went on its holiday break.

Another issue at hand was the two vacancies that the President and Vice President-Elect would leave in the Senate. Alaska Governor Anna Fairclough nominated Mead Treadwell, who was defeated by incumbent Senator Begich in a close match in 2014 to replace Murkowski, and in a more controversial decision, New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan nominated Ayotte’s challenger in this election, Carol Shea-Porter, to fill Ayotte’s seat. Come January, this would give the Democrats a 53 seat majority, a 55 seat if you count the two caucusing independents, which was looking like it would be a wrench in the Murkowski administration’s legislative plans.

Heading into the New Year, one thing was certain: President Murkowski would simply not do business as usual.

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