Elections have consequences. The consequences of the November 2010 elections -- and one might add the November 2009 elections in New Jersey and Virginia and the January 2010 special Senate election in Massachusetts -- became clear as lights shined over the snow at both ends of the Capitol on Thursday night.
At the north end of the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid abruptly withdrew the 1,924-page omnibus spending bill he had submitted two days before. Reid had hoped that the $8 billion worth of earmarks, including some for Republicans, would provide the Republican votes to pass a bill that financed Obamacare and otherwise furthered Democratic policy goals well into the next calendar year.
But Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was able to persuade Republican appropriators not to swallow the bait. Democrats might have gotten their pet provisions through if they had submitted and passed appropriations bills earlier in the year.
But having failed to follow regular legislative order, they were caught defying the will of the voters so clearly expressed in November. Reid's ploy collapsed.
At the south end of the Capitol, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was forced to watch gloomily as her Democrats failed to rally majorities to alter -- and probably sidetrack -- the deal reached between Barack Obama and Republican congressional leaders extending the Bush tax cuts for two years.
Instead, the House voted 277-148 for a measure that the Senate had passed 81-19 earlier in the week. "If someone had told me, the day after Election Day 2008, that the tax rates on income and capital would not increase for the next four years," wrote Bush White House staffer Keith Hennessey in his blog, "I would have laughed."
Plenty of time for laughter now, for Hennessey and for the couple of million people who in some way, shape or form took part in the protests symbolized by but not limited to the tea party movement.
It is a source of continuing fascination for me to watch the interaction between public opinion, as measured in polls and election results, and the actions of members of Congress, elected in one political environment and looking in most cases to be re-elected in one that may be quite different.
Eleven months ago, after the Massachusetts Senate election, I was convinced that Democrats could not jam their health care bill through because voters had so clearly demanded they not do so. But Pelosi proved more determined and resourceful than I had imagined, and found enough House Democrats who were willing to risk electoral defeat to achieve what Democrats proclaimed was a historic accomplishment.
Pelosi and Barack Obama predicted that Obamacare would become more popular as voters learned more about it. Those predictions were based on the theory that in times of economic distress, Americans would be more supportive of or amenable to big government policies.
That theory has been disproved about as conclusively as any theory can be in the real world, and most of the Democrats who provided the key votes for Obamacare were defeated on Election Day.
Democratic congressional leaders did take note of the unpopularity of their policies when they chose not to pass budget resolutions last spring. Presumably they did so because they would have had a hard time rounding up the votes for the high spending and large deficits that would have ensued.
But had the House and Senate passed a budget resolution, Democrats might have been able to pass their preferred tax policy, raising taxes on high earners, under the budget reconciliation process. So the House vote Thursday night was a delayed consequence of the public's long-apparent rejection of their policies.
Obama told Joe the Plumber that he wanted to "spread the wealth around." November's vote, presaged by more than a year of polls, was, as political scientist James Ceasar has written, "the Great Repudiation" of that policy.
Republicans, having succeeded in holding down tax rates, clearly have a mandate to hack away at spending, and to defund and derail Obamacare, which is at or near new lows in the ABC/Washington Post and Rasmussen polls. And there does seem an opening, as Clinton White House staffer William Galston argues, for a 1986-style tax reform that eliminates tax preferences and cuts tax rates.
How effectively the 112th Congress will respond is unclear. But the outgoing 111th Congress, despite its big Democratic majorities, responded pretty clearly Thursday night.