Donald Lambro

But the immediate battle that looms over the remaining weeks of this lame-duck Congress will be the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts that are due to expire on Jan. 1 unless they are extended.

Obama and Democratic leaders want to keep cuts for the middle class, but let them expire for anyone making more than $250,000 a year. The Republicans want the cuts permanently extended. Here, too, the results of the midterm elections will influence the outcome.

In his news conference Wednesday, Obama said he is willing to seek compromise, but did not say where. Raising taxes on the "rich" has been a staple of his failed economic agenda, and he is not likely to change course easily.

But the large Republican gains in the elections, which were seen as a repudiation of his policies, have weakened his presidency and essentially ended his legislative agenda for the next two years. He no longer has the clout he once had on Capitol Hill.

Meantime, the political atmosphere has dramatically changed in Congress. Nancy Pelosi has lost the support of 30- some Democrats, and possibly many more, who say that this is no time to be raising taxes when economic growth is a feeble 2 percent and unemployment is stuck at nearly 10 percent for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps as many as half a dozen Democrats in the Senate are similarly opposed to raising the top income tax rates, including Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Evan Bayh of Indiana and Kent Conrad of North Dakota.

Other returning lawmakers, and those who face even tougher re-election prospects in the next election cycle, have heard the voters and read the gloomy economic data. The Democrats' image is bad enough. Do they want to make it worse by voting to raise income taxes on family-owned small businesses and on capital gains and dividends for retirees and investors in a down economy?

That's what Obama, Pelosi and Reid -- and the hardcore liberal base of their party -- want them to do, even in the aftermath of their devastating defeat in this week's elections.

In the end, a last-minute compromise, perhaps extending the tax cuts for one to two years, is always possible. Obama is thinking about 2012, as is his party, when many more Senate Democrats will be up for re-election than Republicans.

They know that raising taxes in a recession will hand Republicans a deadly issue in the next election that will make Tuesday's results look mild in comparison.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.