Over the next week or two, we are headed into what could be one of the more dramatic political conflagrations of recent decades, as several things happen at once: President Obama's State of the Union address, the unveiling of his new 2010–11 federal budget, the final negotiations over the massive health-care bill, and a Senate race in Massachusetts that is terrifying the Democrats. Each piece is related to and could affect the other, and the result could be a theatrical, chaotic legislative version of the political gridlock we saw in the 2000 Bush-Gore election.
Let's go through the interlocking pieces:
Massachusetts Senate race: Republican Scott Brown is hoping to defeat Democrat Martha Coakley in Massachusetts on Tuesday, and if he does, the victory will be regarded as nothing less than cataclysmic and a flat-out repudiation of the health-care drive. His chances, once minuscule, look shockingly respectable for a Republican senatorial candidate in the Bay State. Brown has made Coakley's support for the health-care bill his main theme.
But under Massachusetts election law, his victory, if it materializes, might not be certified (and thus he might not be sworn in) until at least Feb. 5. The interim Sen. Paul Kirk has vowed to vote for the health-care bill, no matter what happens in the election. There could be lawsuits in every direction, which might delay things further, and further complicate (or pollute) the final vote on health care in the Senate, if and when that vote ever takes place. The suits and possible recounts could happen no matter who wins, if the vote is close enough, which some think it will be.
The budget:The taxes and spending the Obama administration will propose are due to be announced in early February. Under the Budget Act of 1974, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is supposed to unveil a new proposed budget on the first Monday of February, which this year falls on Feb. 1. The rule is generally ignored in the first months of a new presidency (on the theory that the new president needs time to get up to speed). But it is generally adhered to in following years.
Budget gossip geeks (there is such a species here in Washington!) think that OMB Director Peter Orszag is determined to get the document out on time this year, if for no other reason than to prove that his famously active love life was not a distraction. Orszag's problem is that he can't really provide a list of the taxes he wants to raise to help close the deficit until Congress decides which tax measure will include the health-care bill. And it is hard to submit a budget with blank spaces in the revenue column.
The answer, I've been told by outside budget experts, is that Orszag and the president will announce the creation of an executive-branch-based special commission on the budget, and that they will use that as an excuse to leave a lot of blank numbers in the budget.
State of the Union:Usually we know by now the date on which a president will deliver his State of the Union address. But we don't this time. The main reason why we don't is that the White House is hoping to have a health-care deal to crow about when Obama takes the podium. Complex, intense—I would almost say frantic—negotiations are continuing this weekend on the colossal bill. It isn't done. Normally, a president delivers the address on the Tuesday before the budget comes out, so that he can propose in the State of the Union the general policies and principles that the budget will enumerate in detail. That is why everyone assumed the speech would be on Jan. 26. But Obama wants to use the opportunity to begin fighting this year's battles, not to keep fighting last year's battle over health care.
The attempted airline bombing on Christmas and the devastation wreaked by the recent earthquake in Haiti have only further pushed back the domestic policymaking process and political planning in Washington. Obama was elected in part on the promise that he, unlike his predecessor, would be an effective, alert responder to terrorist threats and natural disasters, so he has been focused like a laser on national security and aid to Haiti for the last couple of weeks.
Given everything else going on, the State of the Union could get pushed back a week or more; there's talk of it slipping to as late as Feb. 9. In this crazy season, scheduling matters—and no one knows what the schedule is.
Howard Fineman is also the author of The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country.