NPR

After Election, Congress As Divided As Ever

President Obama was the headliner Tuesday night, but most members of Congress also faced elections. Democrats retained control of the Senate while Republicans held on to control of the House. Now both sides of the divided Congress face significant challenges addressing the nation's fiscal problems.

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Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. The day after the most expensive presidential race in U.S. history, Washington, D.C. looks a lot like it did the day before. President Obama will stay on in the White House for another four years. Republicans maintain control of the House of Representatives. Democrats build on their majority in the U.S. Senate. Congress and the country remain deeply divided.

Last hour, NPR called North Dakota's open Senate seat for Heidi Heitkamp, the Democrat. Ten House and two governors' races remain too close to call. Later this hour, we'll focus on some of the many ballot initiatives across the country: gay marriage, legal marijuana, taxes. And we'll focus on what comes next after this election as the fiscal cliff looms over a divided Washington.

But first, every House seat was on the ballot, a third of the Senate. Who won, who lost, and who's waiting on a final tally? Call and tell us what surprised you last night. We have split phone lines today. If you voted Democratic: 800-344-3893. If you voted Republican: 800-344-3864. Political Junkie Ken Rudin is with us.

And Ken, any number of fascinating races yesterday, none more interesting than I thought those two races in the Upper Plains states, in North Dakota and South Dakota - Montana, excuse me.

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: That's a Butte. Yeah. Oh, yeah. Well, certainly, North Dakota, because this is a big Mitt Romney state. This is the seat where Kent Conrad is retiring, the Democrat, and the Republicans from day one said this is their seat to pick up. Rick Berg, who was a congressman-at-large - meaning he runs statewide - was thought to have a huge lead. Heidi Heitkamp was the Democratic nominee, former state attorney general.

Last time she ran for office, she ran for governor in 2000 and lost that. But Heitkamp, as many Democrats around the country proved, she was a very good candidate, very personable, very approachable, and less negative ads we saw than you saw from the Republican side.

So even though Romney won the state big in North Dakota, Heidi Heitkamp apparently has won that race against Rick Berg. And in Montana, Jon Tester, another huge Romney state, just as Scott Brown had to deal with the Obama powerhouse in Massachusetts, Tester had to deal with the Romney surge. But again, Denny Rehberg, also a statewide congressman who runs every two years, was expected to win.

Tester, I think they were out-Montana, out-homey each other. But Tester certainly did a very good job, and it wasn't that close.

CONAN: At the end, in fact, I think he won by more this time than he did last time, but that was a whisker he won by last time.

RUDIN: And last time, of course, was 2006, a big Democratic year.

CONAN: So as you look at these races in the Senate, there are any number of surprises. The Republicans, of course, suffered from some self-inflicted wounds.

RUDIN: That's the most important thing, too, because when this cycle began, Claire McCaskill, the one-term Democratic incumbent from Missouri, was thought to be in big, big trouble. She had her own little problems. She had a private airplane that she was billing to taxpayers. They called her Air Claire. They were always - and Republicans just were chomping at the bit at taking her on.

Todd Akin, when he won the Republican primary in August, people thought, well, maybe he's not the strongest Republican, but he should still win.

CONAN: In part because Claire McCaskill really wanted him to win.

RUDIN: Yeah, Right, exactly. There were two stronger Republicans perhaps, and she was blasting Akin as the most conservative. So the conservatives, said OK, I'll vote for Todd Akin. But then Akin made the - during the debate, he talked - no, during an interview, he talked about rape and pregnancy and how legitimate rape and pregnancy and how women's bodies will not get pregnant in the cases of rape. Anyway...

CONAN: He was as wrong medically as he was politically.

RUDIN: Well, exactly right. And you know, look, he's - I mean, there are a lot of Republicans, Paul Ryan, the vice presidential nominee, was also like that, too, opposes rape - I'm sorry, opposes abortion in the cases of rape and incest. So this is not an unusual position. But when talking about God and things like that, it just seemed to backfire on Akin, and he never could catch up. The Republicans withdrew funding - although they came in later, but I mean she won handily, double-digits.

CONAN: Similar scenario unfolding in Indiana after Mr. Mourdock, a more conservative candidate, defeated Richard Lugar, the longtime senator, in the Republican primary. His idea of bipartisanship, he said at the time, was Democrats come over to Republican ideas. He then goes up against Joe Donnelly, a Democratic representative, a member of Congress, and shoots himself in the foot.

RUDIN: Well, he did. He also - this was a debate where he talked about whether pregnancy resulting from rape was God's will. So a lot of people said what he meant that it was God's will that they got raped, and he said no, that's not what I meant. But the fact is he still spent most of the campaign explaining what he meant.

But you make a very good point, because before that, he was just, you know, saying that bipartisanship is not something I believe in. And this was the hallmark of Dick Lugar's six terms in the Senate, that he worked with Democrats. Maybe that's why he lost in the Republican primary, but it certainly didn't help Mourdock with independents in November.

CONAN: And two seats the Democrats picked up in New England: In Massachusetts, as you mentioned, Elizabeth Warren defeating Scott Brown, the person who surprisingly won the special election after the death of Senator Kennedy. And then in Maine, Olympia Snowe retired, and independent Angus King, the former governor, won there. He's not saying who he will caucus with. The Republicans spent a lot of money against him. The Democrats worked for him. I think that might be a hint.

RUDIN: Yeah, no, I think you're right. I mean, he says, and he said to Robert Siegel, the election night special last night, that I have not decided. And most people don't buy that at all. The Democrats did put up a candidate, Cynthia Dill in Maine, but they were really not behind her at all. And the Republicans did spend money against Angus King, and they lost.

What's interesting in Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren - first of all, I can't believe we haven't talked about 2016 yet, but you know...

CONAN: Wait, wait.

RUDIN: No, no, I can't wait. Don't wait, don't tell me. But the 2016 does begin now. Elizabeth Warren's name has come up as a potential candidate for 2016, along with Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley...

CONAN: A freshman senator, a Democrat, could get the nomination to win the presidency? That's unbelievable.

RUDIN: That hasn't happened since Barack Obama.

CONAN: I know.

RUDIN: But also in Massachusetts, though, Elizabeth Warren is the first woman elected either governor or senator. Massachusetts always had a history of not electing women to those top positions, and this is the first time it's happened.

CONAN: What surprised you this past election? Democrats: 800-344-3893. Republicans: 800-344-3864. Let's start with Kate, Kate with us from Harrisonburg in Virginia.

KATE: Hi, there. How are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

KATE: So, overall, Virginia surprised me. I live in a small, diverse city in Virginia, and so I knew we were going to go blue, and I knew some other pockets of Virginia were definitely going to go blue, but obviously, the more populous areas: the cities, the more diverse areas. But I also know the surrounding counties, and I know what my neighbors and the people I work around and I work with every day, I know what they believe in. And so I was very concerned about Virginia. So that, in itself, surprised me.

Also, to follow up on the rape comments, I don't think that - I think the Republicans handled it wrong, and I think they very clearly should have distanced themselves from these candidates. I think that they underestimated the kind of passion it would bring out, especially in women voters. And if they do not realign themselves with women for the next election, then they're going to be in trouble again.

CONAN: And there in Virginia, of course, there was the bill that Republicans tried to pass in the legislature that would have involved examinations and probes of women before they got an abortion. I think that played a role in Virginia.

But Ken, as you look at that state, as we all mentioned four years ago, hadn't voted Republican - Democratic since 1964, and now it looks like it might not even be purple anymore.

RUDIN: Well, that's a good point. I mean, what Kate is saying about women, and look, the point is Republicans - you can still be pro-life and, you know, and - or anti-abortion rights and still win. But the rhetoric we saw during the Republican debates - and, of course, the Mourdock and Akin kind of comments - that almost sent the signal to Democrats everywhere saying that, you know, the Republicans may be on the wrong side of female issues.

But the Republicans thought they were on the ascendency in Virginia. Yes, Obama did win the state in 2008 - yes, the first time since Lyndon Johnson - but in 2009, they swept the governorship. They won all three...

CONAN: Republicans, yes.

RUDIN: The Republicans did, the governorship, the lieutenant governor, attorney general, and they made further inroads in the congressional delegation in 2010. So the Republicans thought they were coming back in Virginia, and perhaps they thought that, you know, maybe the, you know, the presidential race and the Senate seat was theirs for the taking.

CONAN: They also had a strong - and Kate, thanks very much for the call.

KATE: Thank you.

CONAN: A strong senatorial candidate, former Governor George Allen, who of course lost that Senate race six years ago. And another former governor, Tim Kaine, came back to beat him.

RUDIN: And what's ironic is that, you know, Tim Kaine, of course, was the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, whose job it was to elect Democrats and defeat Republicans, and yet Tim Kaine was able to say in his statewide commercials that I will work across party lines. I will be bipartisan. And George Allen just didn't seem to have an answer. He almost didn't have a - I mean, once upon a time, he was a rising star in the Republican Party, but I didn't see that vigor from George Allen this time around.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the Republican line. This is Ben, Ben calling us from Ogden, Utah.

BEN: Yeah, thanks for taking my call. Very interesting election. I actually voted for Gary Johnson.

CONAN: The Libertarian candidate.

BEN: Yeah, and I - you know, I'm registered Republican, but I voted - I have voted all over the party lines, you know, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, whoever I feel the best candidate is. And in Utah, you can vote for a third party and feel good about it, because they're always going to vote Republican, at least on the national stage.

But it seems to me there's been a lot of interesting discussions, but it seems to me the lines were drawn pretty drastically along racial lines when you look at whites and non-whites and how they voted. If the Republican Party is supposed to woo the minorities - the Latinos and the African-Americans and all these people who voted for Obama - how is the Republican Party going to woo those folks without deviating from, you know, small government, from, you know, pro-business and all these things that are so ingrained in to both parties?

I just - it just seems a huge ideological jump.

CONAN: Well, I...

BEN: Is the Republican Party trying to convert these people to conservatism, or does the Republican Party have to move towards the middle? And I'll take my call off the air.

CONAN: All right, Ben, thanks very much. And Ken, I think there is some - many in the Republican Party believe they can win a lot of Latino votes, but they will probably have to change their position on immigration.

RUDIN: Oh, absolutely, and we saw that in major states. They lost overwhelming a Senate race in New Mexico. They lost a Senate race overwhelmingly in Florida. They - the Republicans barely won a Senate race in Arizona, with Jeff Flake beating a Latino candidate.

But what Ben says, you know, Ben is talking - he said he's calling from Utah. The big story - and usually we don't have big stories from Utah, other than the fact that the Salt Lake Tribune endorsed Barack Obama. But we had Mia Love, we had an African-American female Republican running for Congress, and a lot of people thought - and she's also a Mormon. And a lot of people thought she might win, but she did lose. And so, once again, we no longer have an African-American female Republican Mormon in the Congress.

CONAN: The results are in - most of them, anyway. Up next, we'll talk about what happens now. Any hope of compromise before we plunge over that fiscal cliff? What's the next step on health care, taxes, immigration? Stay with us. We'll also be talking about referenda that passed in various parts of the country, or didn't. Republicans: 800-344-3864. Democrats: 800-344-3893. What surprised you yesterday? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The president won another title last night: Most retweeted post on Twitter. After the projections came in, the campaign tweeted: Four more years. It was resent hundreds of thousands of times. There were also several more notable firsts yesterday.

New Hampshire becomes the first state to be led by an all-female delegation. A record number of seats are now held by women in the Senate. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin, became the first openly gay senator in the House. Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii's Second District will become the first Hindu elected to the U.S. House.

And there were many other firsts last night. We're talking today about the results, to be sure, but also what happens next. Political Junkie Ken Rudin is with us. Call and tell us what surprised you last night. We have split phone lines today. Democrats, 800-344-3893. If you voted Republican, 800-344-3864.

Joining us here in Studio 3A is NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner. Good to have you with us today.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Nice to be here.

CONAN: And one of the greatest distinctions between the two candidates was that Mitt Romney, the Republican, said day one he would repeal Obamacare. Well, that was not something that was within his power as president, but nevertheless that and anything like that is now not going to happen.

ROVNER: That is now not going to happen. That is definitely the - even Republicans were saying last night that it now the law, it will now go forward. There are a couple of scattered court challenges still out there, but everybody assumes that it is now going forward. In what form, no one is quite sure, and the clock is ticking.

States now only have nine days to decide whether or not they're going to do their own health exchanges. These are the marketplaces where people can buy insurance or let the federal government do it for them. They must decide that by November 16. And they knew that deadline was coming, but a lot of people had been ignoring it, thinking, oh, Mitt Romney's going to get elected, the Senate's going to go Republican, they're going to, you know, make the law stop or go away or something. And guess what?

CONAN: That's not going to happen. There are also states - we're talking about referenda later in the program - but who passed ballot measures saying our state will not have any truck with the Affordable Health Care Act.

ROVNER: That's right, and those things are basically worth the paper they're written on. States cannot supersede federal law. So they - we added three states to that list last night. There had been, I think, three states that had done it before. So they are basically hortatory, as we call it.

There was one state, however, that - where it was meaningful. In Missouri, the state said that the state will not set up its own insurance exchange, and that obviously is something that is within the state's power to do. And it was really intended to block the state's newly re-elected Democratic governor, who was planning on doing it by executive order, and they said no, you can't do that. And apparently now - no, he can't do that.

So the federal government will come in and do it for them in that state.

CONAN: And any other state that decides not to play that particular part of the game.

ROVNER: Indeed, that is how the law is written. The states have an option. They can set up their own exchange, and if they choose not to, the federal government will come in and do it for them.

CONAN: Now, we knew that some parts of the Affordable Health Care Act have already taken effect. Everybody knows you can keep your child on your health coverage until the age of 26, for example. Other parts, though, are now scheduled to kick in.

ROVNER: That's right, and these are the big parts of the law, the parts that people were really looking forward to, the no pre-existing condition restrictions for adults, the expansion of Medicaid for most adults with income under $15,000 a year, these new exchanges where people will be able to go and buy low-cost insurance and get big subsidies from the federal government if they can't afford it.

All of these things start January 1, 2014. And you know, everybody thought, oh, it's going to be such a long time in 2010, you know, why was it going to take so long for this stuff to kick in. Well, look, it's 13 months away now, and a lot of time has gone by this year with people thinking, oh, the Supreme Court will rule it unconstitutional or, oh, Mitt Romney will get elected and, you know, the next Congress will make it go away.

Well, now suddenly there's 13 months to go and a lot of work to be done.

CONAN: There were many who also said even if Mr. Romney is elected and a Republican Senate comes in, there are parts of that law that are now so entwined in American life that it's going to be impossible to get rid of them. Now that President Obama is certain to make sure that he will use his veto pen if necessary, even if a Republican Senate is elected two years from now, that by the time he leaves office four years from now, is this going to be so entwined in American society, such a part of America's health care, that it's going to be there permanently?

ROVNER: Well, you know, a lot of the infrastructure has been built, is being built already, within the insurance industry, within the health care industry, things like electronic medical records, things like the way the back offices are organized to pay for things. And these are things that are supposed to make changes that will help slow, if not bring down, the cost of health care, things that are invisible to most people but that are major structural changes in how health care is delivered.

The idea is that once the big changes that people can see get going, these health insurance exchanges, the subsidies, the expansions of Medicaid, that then they will perhaps become more popular. One of the things we saw in the exit polls last night is that the law is still - the public is still very divided about the law, and there's still a slightly larger split, people who would like to see it either repealed or changed than people who would like to see it kept or expanded.

And as we mentioned, there were, you know, voters in those three states that voted to, you know, to block the part that said people would be required to have insurance or pay this penalty. It's still the least popular part.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Julie, obviously in the election of 2010, many candidates were either elected or defeated based on how they voted or felt about the Affordable Health Care Act. Did you see it being a key issue at all in yesterday's elections?

ROVNER: No. I think in 2010 it was - that was part of it, but it was mostly an issue about Medicare and the cuts that were made to Medicare as part of this law. And I think the Democrats really fought back on Medicare this time. And in the exit polls we did see that President Obama had an edge over Mitt Romney on Medicare, and I think that was partly due to the fact that the Republicans came out with their own Medicare proposal, which the public felt was even, you know, more destructive to Medicare than what the Affordable Care Act did to Medicare. So it was kind of a pox on both their houses when it came to Medicare.

But I think it was really less about what the Affordable Care Act was going to do than it was what it was going to do to Medicare. Also I think, as Neal said, some of the things that have since taken effect between 2010 and now are proving popular, things like keeping your young adults on your health plan, things like having insurance companies, you know, give rebates to people if they've spent too much money on administration and profits.

So you know, those are not the big parts of the law, but they're the little parts of the law that people - that have affected a lot of people and that people have actually liked.

CONAN: Now, what are the odds everything goes as planned?

ROVNER: Zero.

(LAUGHTER)

ROVNER: It's a big law. It's a big health system. Nobody thinks everything is going to go as planned.

CONAN: Julie Rovner, NPR health policy correspondent, with us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much.

ROVNER: Sure.

CONAN: Let's get a call in on the Republican line, and this is Chris(ph), Chris with us from San Francisco.

CHRIS: Hi Neal, thanks for having me in the conversation.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

CHRIS: Yeah, the one thing that hasn't been talked a lot about, and the show has just a Republican and a Democratic line, I'm actually an independent but lean fiscally conservative so took the Republican line, but I found it really interesting, late in the election it seemed like many independents who were more socially liberal but fiscally concerned that were leaning Romney's way because of the economy had sort of some really interesting perspective in terms of Mayor Bloomberg, followed by Colin Powell, followed by Chris Christie really endorsing the job that the president did around the hurricane.

And I'm just curious as to the panel's thoughts in terms of the impact of those things on independents as the election came to a close.

CONAN: Our panel is called Ken.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Thanks very much, Chris.

RUDIN: Mr. Panel.

CONAN: Mr. Panel. So Chris Christie, of course, did not endorse the president.

RUDIN: Of course not.

CONAN: He did endorse the job he did that...

RUDIN: The president did.

CONAN: Yeah.

RUDIN: Exactly. And look, Michael Bloomberg did make an endorsement. He did make a key endorsement of President Obama.

CONAN: On climate change basis.

RUDIN: Exactly, and he also endorsed many congressional candidates that didn't win. I'm not sure that anybody really paid attention. First of all, I don't think endorsements mean that much anyway, but I don't think Michael Bloomberg made a difference. But there were people like Bloomberg and Powell who are non-ideological, small-R Republicans who have obviously, you know, have some kind of clout with the electorate, the kind of an electorate that says that I don't want the ideological extremes, I want to look towards the middle. And Romney didn't appeal to those voters.

CONAN: And Chris Christie, going across the border - the aisle - to praise President Obama for his work during the hurricane, I think that did have an effect.

RUDIN: It did, but of course Chris Christie, for all we know, may have been just really helping his own re-election campaign next year, when he...

CONAN: You cynic. Last night left us with a divided Congress and any number of looming financial challenges. At a news conference today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat, said the solution rests in the ability of lawmakers to compromise across party lines.

SENATOR HARRY REID: It's better to dance than to fight. It's better to work together. Everything doesn't have to be a fight. Everything doesn't have to be a fight. That's the way it's been the last couple of years.

CONAN: Joining us here in Studio 3A is NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax, and nice to have you with us, as always.

MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And it's interesting, lawmakers have any number of responsibilities for the next few weeks. It was interesting to hear Harry Reid sounding - well, we can dance with his Republican counterparts, though the - Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, was not sounding quite so accommodating.

GEEWAX: It really is the big question right now: Shall we dance? You know, here's Harry Reid saying he wants to dance. He doesn't want to fight. But the pushback already seems pretty stiff from Republicans, and this is a huge issue for the economy. People are really watching this. If you talk to economists, one earlier this week said his mantra is they really can't be that stupid to let this happen.

And so there is a lot of people out there who feel they will watch this closely, but they believe, in the end, Congress will do the right thing and figure out a way to raise tax revenues and cut spending enough to balance the budget, put off some of these big coming tax changes.

But, you know, there's an awful lot of people, too, in Washington who think Congress just doesn't have enough time, that between now and the end of the year, when so many of these tax changes and spending cuts kick in, there's just not enough time left to work out the compromises. So there are sort of four scenarios out there right now.

CONAN: Well, let me just remind people that this scenario gets set up because last year, the - Congress could not reach agreement on a debt reduction deal that would include taxes that - Democrats wanted that - and would include cuts to entitlement programs. Republicans wanted that.

So they made a compromise. They said, by the end of the year, if we don't have a deal, we're going to do across-the-board cuts which everybody hates. And, of course, the Bush tax cuts would also expire, raising everybody's taxes. Everybody is going to hate that, so, of course, we'll make a deal. Well, they have, what, 49 days left.

GEEWAX: Right. And, of course, when you take out time for Thanksgiving, Christmas, all of that, there are long weekends, it's really very few days that they have left to figure this out. So the scenario that many economists - stock investors would consider this the absolute best - would be some kind of grand bargain where they really do figure this all out, get it done. Everybody knows it has to happen. Just do it.

So the grand bargain just-do-it scenario would be great. I don't think anybody actually believes that will really happen. So then you drop down from that and there's the mini deal rather than a grand bargain. The mini deal is find a way to make a dent in the budget deficit and find a way to put off, at least delay, a lot of these coming changes.

And that's even probably too much for them to get to, so then there's the - oh, that phrase we all hate now - kick-the-can-down-the-road approach. And that is just somehow get out enough duct tape and baling wire and whatever else you need to try to patch together some kind of a way to delay all of this into summer, give themselves another six months and just have nothing happen.

But there's - there are lots of problems with that. Businesses, individuals, they want to know what their taxes are. Contractors with the government, they want to know if the spending is going to be cut. So that's really a lousy scenario, but, right now, it could be the most likely.

And then the fourth scenario is just do nothing and go ahead. Go over that cliff. Both sides are so dug in, at least on their extremes, that some Democrats say, good, let the tax cuts expire, and then we'll have more tax revenues, and good. You know, that kind of thinking, a lot of economists say, will really lead to a shock to the economy and you'd bring on a recession.

CONAN: We're talking with business editor Marilyn Geewax. Political Junkie Ken Rudin is with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Ken, let me ask you. The Democrats say, well, we just won an election. We have a gun to the heads of the Republicans. They have to come over to our side. Republicans say, wait. No, no, no, no. We're not going to compromise on this either. Is that scenario that Marilyn is describing, that - well, going to find out in a couple of months.

RUDIN: Well, something has to happen, but, you know, Marilyn makes a good point in the fact that even when John Boehner, the speaker of the House on the Republican side, was talking once upon a time about maybe doing something about revenue, maybe not tax cuts, but maybe some...

CONAN: Tax increases.

RUDIN: ...tax increases, but not doing as much. But even he was shot down by his own Republican caucus. So, I mean, we - you know, we saw Romney. We saw Obama last night talking about we have to work together. We have to make this work. But I still see the Congress as being an MSNBC party and a Fox News party and that they're not going to be the kind of folks that are just going to bend their own principles to make something happen.

GEEWAX: Ken, I just want to say one thing. Now you're the political expert, so I don't want to step into your area too much. But it seems that one of the key players when they were - there was a - the grand bargain was - they were trying to work that out in the summer of 2011. Eric Cantor of Virginia was one of the people who was really sort of opposed to any kind of a grand bargain.

Well, Virginia looks like maybe it's getting bluer by the minute. I don't know. That's your area. But it seems to me that maybe it'll soften him up a little bit in terms of being more willing to compromise. It seems that he would want to stay in office. And if the - if people in Virginia are drifting more towards let's be a little more compromisey(ph), maybe that has some impact.

CONAN: Eric Cantor, I'll just say, the majority leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives and a member from Virginia.

RUDIN: Right. I mean, but there were two conflicts that Eric Cantor was facing. It could be the voters back home in a suddenly purple state of Virginia, or it could also be the Tea Party majority in the House that says, look, if Eric Cantor is willing to compromise away his principles, we'll just get another more conservative leader.

I mean, I saw a lot of releases by people declaring themselves as Tea Party leaders - whatever that means - in the last couple of days said, the reason we lost is that we were too willing to compromise, that we weren't truly conservative enough. Look, whether it's accurate or not, but that sentiment is out there. And if Boehner is not strong enough, if Cantor is not strong enough, maybe we'll find a Republican who is.

CONAN: And as you look at this situation, the economists you talked to, Marilyn, did they say, absolutely, this would be such a shock if we step off the fiscal cliff? Because, among others, Howard Dean is among the Democrats who says he's at least willing to bluff all the way to the edge of the fiscal cliff, but says it wouldn't be such a bad recession. You'd be talking about tax cuts instead of tax increases after these Bush tax cuts expired. You'd be talking about spending increases rather than cuts. This could be good.

GEEWAX: I rarely see circumstances where economists are in unanimous agreement. And I think that there is really unanimity on this one. Everybody agrees from the Congressional Budget Office on down that this would be a financial catastrophe for the country. There are lots of reasons why this would be really bad. For one, it would send taxes up for many, many, many people. Most Americans would feel an increase in income taxes, all sorts of things.

But also, one of the elements of the fiscal cliff is that payroll tax holiday that we've had. So if that one expires, immediately, starting right in January, an awful lot of people who live paycheck to paycheck are going to see tax increases. And gosh, this is still a very fragile economy. Economists say that this is not a good time to be doing all of this.

CONAN: NPR's business editor - senior business editor, Marilyn Geewax, with us here in Studio 3A. The fiscal cliff will be a matter of conversation between now and the end of the year, perhaps past it. We're now hearing that Democrat Steve Bullock has won the race for governor in Montana. He ran against Republican Rick Hill. So another race decided today.

We'll keep an eye on those that remain too close to call. Up next, the issues on ballots across the country: medical marijuana, gay marriage, taxes among others. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. Ken Rudin is with us, our political junkie. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: Voters in Maine and Maryland yesterday endorsed gay marriage. Residents of Colorado and Washington may be allowed to use marijuana legally after referenda in those states passed. With more than 170 measures on the ballot yesterday, voters spoke on a wider range of issues, from taxes to health care to physician to assisted suicide. If there was an important ballot measure where you live, what happened? What surprised you? Split phone lines today. If you voted Democratic: 800-344-3893. If you voted Republican: 800-344-3864.

Jennie Drage Bowser joins us now. She's a senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures where her work focuses on ballot initiatives and joins us from Colorado Public Radio in Centennial, Colorado. Nice to have you back with us.

JENNIE DRAGE BOWSER: Hi. Thanks.

CONAN: And last time, we started out talking about those gay marriage provisions. And this was in Maryland, Maine and in Washington.

BOWSER: Yes. And you remember when we talked about them on last time, we talked about how all signs were pointing towards passage. Turns out the signs were right.

CONAN: There was also another gay-marriage-related issue that was on the amendment to the constitution in Minnesota.

BOWSER: Yes. And this is a question that's really similar to something that voters in 30 other states have considered over the last decade and a half. But Minnesota voters rejected the measure. What it said was that marriage shall be defined as between one man and one woman. So it had the effect of prohibiting same-sex marriage in the state. But Minnesota voters rejected that.

CONAN: So we've had a sea change on this issue. As you've mentioned, there had been 30-plus votes in the past on this issue. It has never been approved by voters before.

BOWSER: Right. Yeah. There's a 180-degree turn in voter behavior this year. This is a really big deal for advocates of same-sex marriage.

CONAN: The Affordable Care Act on the ballot in several states - we were talking with Julie Rovner about that earlier - and this was states effectively opting out.

BOWSER: Attempting too. You know, the practical implications of these measures is really not clear at this point in time. But, yes, four out of five states yesterday voted to opt out of the Affordable Care Act.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. Paul is with us on the Democratic line. He is with us from Tucson, Arizona.

PAUL: Hi. I was actually curious about the marijuana ballots that passed in, I think, Washington and Colorado. How is this going to play out with the federal government? They're going to be at odds. Is it going to be a Supreme Court issue or, you know, when will people start being able to do stuff?

CONAN: There - these are not medical marijuana referenda, Jennie Drage Bowser. These were legalization of small amounts of marijuana.

BOWSER: Yeah. And the caller asks a really good question, and it's one that I don't have an answer for. We're going to have to wait and see. So 18 states and D.C. already have legalized medical marijuana and that, of course, is contrary to federal law too. And really, enforcement of federal law has been rather uneven across the states on these medical marijuana laws. We see people arrested and prosecuted here and there, but it's not the case by any means that federal officials are knocking down the doors of every medical marijuana dispensary across the country.

Legalizing marijuana across the board without that medical piece involved, of course, is a step further than the medical marijuana laws have gone. And it is contrary to federal law. So I think we're just going to have to wait and see what the federal government does in response.

CONAN: Ken?

RUDIN: Yeah, the Justice Department actually was asked about that, you know, the spokesman of the Justice Department said, we're just not going to deal with that right now. They don't know how to deal with it. But there's this great quote from John Hickenlooper, the governor of Colorado who opposes the legalization. He said that federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don't break out the Cheetos or goldfish too quickly.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Paul, we hope you're refraining from Cheetos.

PAUL: Oh, I actually don't care for it. I'm more interested in the economic effects. I think it will help combat the recession.

RUDIN: And, you know, I also read Playboy for the articles. No, really, I do.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Interesting that part of these provisions is to, well, regulate the sales and tax the sales. And it was passed by a lot of advocates, saying this is a way to increase revenue for the state. Just another sin tax like liquor or cigarette taxes. Massachusetts - there was physician-assisted suicide ballot item on the ballot in Massachusetts; that was rejected.

BOWSER: Yeah. It appears that that was rejected. Five states have voted on this in the past. And two of the five, Oregon and Washington, have approved it. But it looks like Michigan is going to go along with California, Maine - I'm sorry. Massachusetts is going to go along with California, Maine and Michigan in rejecting that.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to Maria. Maria calling us from Tulsa.

MARIA: Yes. Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

MARIA: I was calling because I think it's very interesting that when four different states pass rights for gay marriage, municipalities in the state of Kansas actually legalized discrimination yesterday in at least two cities that I'm aware of, Salina, Kansas and Hutchinson. And I find that very sad. We've come so far national level, at the state level, there's almost backwards movement. And I'm hoping the people of Kansas can come together and fight this because all people want to do is live their lives.

CONAN: And forgive me if I'm wrong. But, Jennie Drage Bowser, I think Kansas is among the states that has the constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between one man and one woman.

BOWSER: They are. They're one of the 30 states that have that provision in their constitution.

CONAN: And this is, Ken, going to come up at the Supreme Court. It was interesting that you had one of the Supreme Court justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, say she expected a case to come up on the Defense of Marriage Act, which is, of course, a federal law, in - that they would hear that case this year. They've not scheduled as yet. There's also the case about California's Prop 8, but everybody thinks or many people think the court will rule on that as a narrow just-California issue.

RUDIN: You know, there seems to be a whole sea change on that sentiment. I don't know if it began with Joe Biden thinking that that should be changed, then President Obama evolved into that position. But suddenly, you know, as Jennie points out, this is the first time ever that voters are coming around to that point of view because in every time it's been on the ballot, it's been defeated.

CONAN: As Maria points out, this is not a universal opinion. But, Maria, thanks very much for the phone call.

MARIA: Thank you very much. And I hope that we continue to move forward on it. I think it's fair for everyone to have a fair shot.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Mark. And Mark is on the line with us from Logan, Utah.

MARK: Hi. Good afternoon. Thank you for taking my call. I just want to bring up a proposal that I was actually surprised not to hear covered at all on NPR yet today. I've been listening since early this morning. And that will be Proposal 3 in Michigan about renewable energy. And I believe it was the only proposal countrywide that had to do with renewable energy. And it was to have 25 percent of the energy produced and used in Michigan by the year 2025 as renewable energy.

And I just like to get your panel's comments on that and also just to bring that up and make that part of the conversation. Thank you very much. I'll take my call off the air.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Mark. And this was one of the relatively few climate change or green initiatives on the ballots yesterday.

BOWSER: It's true, and voters in Michigan rejected Proposal 3, along with really every other measure that was on the statewide ballot in Michigan. They had a very negative view about ballot measures there yesterday. There was one measure on the ballot in California that got approval, though, that's related. This was Proposition 39 there, and it changes the way that business taxes are calculated. And it's going to have the effect of bringing in more revenue to the state of California, and they're going to direct most of that to clean energy projects and training for clean energy jobs.

CONAN: Let me ask you about a couple of other ballot items there in California. Of course, the epicenter of the ballot amendment world, and the Three Strikes You're Out, they were going to change that provision. Did that pass?

BOWSER: That did pass. The one that was on the topic of criminal justice that got a lot of the attention going into the election that did not pass was the repeal of the death penalty.

CONAN: There was also - Gov. Brown put a proposal to increase taxes and tax revenue. He said if that did not pass, they might have to cut the school year by another three weeks.

BOWSER: That passed.

CONAN: So he did get his taxes?

BOWSER: Much to the dismay of school kids in California.

CONAN: There was also a smoking tax, a cigarette tax, on the ballot in, I believe, Missouri, which has the, right now, the lowest cigarette taxes in the country.

BOWSER: Yes, and Missouri voters rejected that. It's the second time they have rejected an increase in tobacco taxes.

CONAN: And any other particular items that jumped out at you today?

BOWSER: Oh, gosh. They all do. It's fascinating stuff. You know, one really interesting pieces that labored, did really well on the ballot last night, you know, they had a collective bargaining measure on the ballot in Michigan and that one failed. But they also had votes on some attempts by state legislatures in Idaho and South Dakota and also in Michigan to reduce the influence of public employee unions, particularly teacher unions. And voters vetoed all of those attempts by legislatures to do that. So it's a good night for unions in most ways.

CONAN: Jennie Drage Bowser, thank you very much for your time today.

BOWSER: It's been a pleasure.

CONAN: Jennie Drage Bowser, senior fellow for the National Conference of Sate Legislatures. She joined us from a studio at Colorado Public Radio in Centennial, Colorado.

And, Ken, we've been talking about the races that were decided. There are still a few House races left undecided.

RUDIN: They are. They're a bunch. And a lot - there a lot of incumbents who seem to be hanging on for dear life and losing in California. Dan Lungren is losing by 180 votes in his district with all the votes counted. Mary Bono Mack, the widow of Sony Bono, married to Connie Mack. Mary Bono Mack is losing her seat. Allen West, one of two of African-American Republicans from Florida, a very controversial, outspoken Republican, he is losing by about 2,500 votes to Patrick Murphy.

CONAN: That's just north of Jacksonville, right?

RUDIN: I don't know much - north of West Palm Beach, north of Palm Beach.

CONAN: OK.

RUDIN: And also - but also a surprise, Ron Barber. He's the guy who succeeded Gabby Giffords, the former Gabby Giffords aide, who was actually injured during that horrific shooting day. Ron Barber is trailing in that race and that was supposed to be even more Democratic than it was before. And Michele Bachmann barely survived. It was very, very close. And four Democrats lost in California, all to fellow Democrats. Howard Berman lost to Sherman. Pete Stark, long-time Democrat there, lost his seat. Joe Baca and - a battle between two Democrats at California, Janice Hahn defeated Laura Richardson.

CONAN: This after California's new revised election procedure. There is an open primary. Democrats, Republicans, Green Party, whatever, they all run in one primary. The top two finishers then face off in November even if they're from the same party.

RUDIN: Exactly. And that's what happened to the famous Berman-Sherman thing. Two Democrats moved down to the general election.

CONAN: We're talking politics. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Ken, as you looked at these races yesterday, as you went through all of this, - we talked about the presidential race. We talked about the Senate - what surprised you?

RUDIN: Well, the fact is that every race that was thought to be closed seemed to have gone the Democratic way, and the ones - even the ones that the Republicans won, like in Arizona, a retention, Nevada, which was a retention, much closer than I thought it would be. The Republican potential pickups of Montana, North Dakota, the Democrats kept it. You know, for all the talk about Scott Brown's independence, I don't think that was a surprise in Massachusetts, given the nature of the demographics and the Democratic nature of the state.

But Scott Brown, that wasn't even that close. Now, there's already talk about Scott Brown - now that Hillary Clinton says she's leaving the administration, John Kerry, the senator from Massachusetts will be appointed secretary of state.

CONAN: Maybe.

RUDIN: Maybe. And then maybe Scott Brown runs in that special election and wins that seat. But, you know, it's just remarkable that all the things that were close, you know, just went - seemed to go the Democratic way, even though - as we say that Republicans kept majority in the House. And the fact that they lost 63 seats two years ago, you think there'd be much more. But...

CONAN: Gained 63 seats.

RUDIN: Gained 63 seats. You thought they'd - you'd think there'll be much more of a correction this year. But they still hung on more than they did. A lot of it was redistricting that helped them.

CONAN: And you're surprised that there might a recount in Florida?

RUDIN: Well, I'm just fortunate and thankful that it will not determine who will be the next president. We won't be holding up chads. We won't be talking to Katherine Harris. We won't - we'll have an answer before December 12th. Florida is still close. We thought Ohio would be the big headache, and so far, the only headache in the presidential race seems to be Florida.

CONAN: And, well, let's be daring and mention - you said last night, the race for 2016 starts today.

RUDIN: It does and, you know, there's talk about what role Paul Ryan may have. Of course, he's the, you know, he was re-elected to Congress as well as losing for vice president. He's a young, you know, growing influence in the party. I'm not sure what other difference he made. Everybody made such a big deal about the VP. And once again, we proved that it really is about the top of the ticket. I don't know what Paul Ryan did. But on the Democratic side, we're still hearing about Joe Biden, the out, you know, the term-limited vice president. Hillary Clinton says no, but who knows? There's Martin O'Malley. There is...

CONAN: The governor of Maryland.

RUDIN: ...Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York and, of course, a lot of the Republicans who thought about it this year, like Governor Christie, perhaps Mitch Daniels of Indiana. I mean, I know 2016 is a long time, but 2012 was so yesterday, Neal.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: It is so yesterday. As you look ahead, though, we were talking about Governor Christie earlier, of course, that endorsement - that embraced, rather, of President Obama in the midst of the hurricane damage. That probably did him some good in his upcoming race for re-election in New Jersey. It could not hurt him in a general election. Might it hurt him, though, in a Republican primary?

RUDIN: Well, that's a good question. Of course, 2000 - probably not in New Jersey, but perhaps if he's thinking about 2016, it might. You know, it also talks about the different way we're seeing President Obama a few years ago when then Republican Governor Charlie Crist of Florida embraced President Obama when he went down there. He was hard and feathered. As a matter of fact, he was - he had to leave the Republican Party because he was finished as a Republican figure there.

Whereas now, the pat on the back, the embrace between Chris Christie and President Obama cannot - certainly could not hurt Chris Christie if he wants a second term as governor when he's up next year.

CONAN: And as you look ahead to 2016, what happens to the presidential candidate this year, Mitt Romney?

RUDIN: Well, he is 65 years old. This is his second bid for the presidency. I think he - I think, by all accounts, he's been there, done that. It's hard to imagine a third candidate. Plus the fact that if there will be a circular firing squad in the Republican Party trying to asses blame for what happened, Mitt Romney is not the name you want to bring forward again for four more years.

CONAN: Yesterday, last night, President Obama said, maybe Mitt Romney ought to stop by the White House and we'll about his ideas. Might Mitt Romney be, well, to some - take him up on the offer and find a job in an Obama administration?

RUDIN: Well, I don't know about so much about of job. But I certainly - I think they have a lot to talk to each other, and the fact remains that the country is divided. If you look at the popular vote for president, it was almost a 50-50 election. And certainly Romney and Obama could - it couldn't hurt getting together. But we still have a Congress that is still split. We still have more and more moderates leaving Congress, Republicans in the House being more conservative, Democrats in the House perhaps being more liberal.

And if the two parties can't talk to each other - if the House and Senate and can't talk to each other - then Romney and Obama, I don't know what effect they can have for having tea together.

CONAN: Ken Rudin will be back next week with another edition of the Political Junkie and - Wednesdays, of course. And stay with NPR News for the latest on the races that remain to be called. Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, the second nuclear age, ways we need to keep thinking about the uses of nuclear weapons, and those uses, of course, do not include blowing them up. Stay with us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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