Issues for state hang in balance after Obama's election

ElectionsPoliticsBarack ObamaAgricultureDefenseUnrest, Conflicts and WarRepublican Party

Advocates for a host of Maryland interests — from the Chesapeake Bay to the defense industry — said Wednesday they are anxiously watching whether the election will change the political landscape here despite early indications that it probably won't.

A divided Congress will remain in place come January, and lawmakers wasted little time in disagreeing about the meaning of President Barack Obama's victory. Both Democrats and Republicans claimed mandates from voters and signaled that they will hold firm on positions that have led to gridlock in the past.

Looming is the year-end deadline to address a $500 billion combination of expiring tax breaks and spending cuts known as the fiscal cliff. Lawmakers return to Washington on Tuesday to begin work on that issue.

"We both have mandates — to get things done," said Sen. Ben Cardin, the Maryland Democrat who won a second term by nearly 29 percentage points. "I think the Republican leadership in the House is on notice that they're going to be watched very, very carefully."

The region's vast contracting industry is particularly vulnerable to the "fiscal cliff." The federal government awarded $27 billion in contracts in Maryland in 2010. Under the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration that would be imposed if a budget cannot be passed, the Department of Defense would be forced to trim $50 billion from its budget.

"It probably does change the dynamic a bit," said Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, a contracting trade group, of Obama's re-election. "There's probably a better chance they're going to avoid sequestration, but no one is sure what that looks like."

Leaders of two federal workforce unions cheered Obama's re-election, pointing out that Republican Mitt Romney had called for a significant paring of some agencies. But they also threw down lines of defense against the possibility that their members could be targeted to help close budget gaps, even with a Democrat in the White House.

"Labor delivered Ohio for President Obama," said J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. "President Obama knows that."

Nearly 300,000 federal workers live in Maryland, about 10 percent of the state's civilian workforce.

In Cox's view, the election was largely a referendum on Obama's plan to let tax cuts expire on individual income over $200,000 and Republicans should let that happen. If they do, he said, it would produce enough revenue — about $40 billion in 2013 — to possibly make federal employees less of a target.

Federal workers have already been operating under a two-year pay freeze. Obama has called for a modest 0.5 percent increase for 2013.

But even before Election Day, House Speaker John Boehner warned that Republicans are not prepared to give on tax rates. Following a conference call with his caucus Wednesday, he said the party is "willing to accept new revenue, under the right conditions," but it was not immediately clear what those conditions might be.

Obama, Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid struck conciliatory notes, but Reid reiterated that he would consider changing Senate rules to limit the use of filibusters to block legislation from advancing. That idea has been criticized by Senate Republicans.

"I want to work together," he said, "but I also want everyone to also understand, you cannot push us around."

Rep. Andy Harris, who will be the only Republican in the Maryland congressional delegation next year, said his party is confident in its negotiating position because it retained control of the House. He said he believes a deal can be reached, but only if Obama negotiates in good faith.

"We enter with a mandate equal to the president's," said Harris, whose district stretches from Carroll County to the Eastern Shore. "The House is going to be very resistant to the idea of any taxes in the middle of a very fragile economy."

Maryland's other Republican, 20-year incumbent Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, was trounced by Democratic challenger John Delaney in Tuesday's election. That victory was in part the result of a new district drawn last year by Democrats in Annapolis.

The fate of other, national legislation that would affect Maryland remains unclear. Some lawmakers would like to take up a $500 billion farm bill that pays for agricultural programs, food stamps and soil conservation. Also, legislation is pending to overhaul the U.S. Postal Service, which could affect post offices in the state that are slated to close.

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, said state officials are hopeful a second Obama term will bring movement on legislation to address climate change. The state is working to reduce emissions, but Guillory said the problem requires action at the federal level as well. Congress last attempted to deal with that issue in 2009.

Doug Siglin, the top federal lobbyist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said he expects the administration will attempt to confront a backlog of environmental issues over the next four years. He said he is confident Obama will honor a 2009 executive order directing the federal government to play a greater role in the bay's cleanup than it had previously.

Part of the group's focus over the next few years will be to keep that framework in place, he said, and guard bay restoration programs from cuts.

"Water is going to be part of the agenda," Siglin said of Obama's second term. "I'm upbeat."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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ElectionsPoliticsBarack ObamaAgricultureDefenseUnrest, Conflicts and WarRepublican Party
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