What Will The GOP Do If It Wins The Senate?
It might not be pretty.
With six months to go before Election Day, the question on everyone’s mind, of course, is whether or not Republicans will take control of the Senate. As I’ve noted before, the odds of that happening are very good given the fact that Democrats find themselves having to defend seats in seven states that Mitt Romney won in 2012. Additionally, we’ve seen strong candidate choices in states like New Hampshire, Michigan, and Oregon open up the possibility that one or all of these states could flip to the GOP on Election Day. And, of course, the President’s polling is making things even more difficult for Democrats around the country. Given all those factors, nearly every major political forecaster is currently predicting that the GOP will likely take control of the Senate, with Nate Silver recently putting the GOP’s chances as high as 60% even at this early stage of the midterm race.
So, assuming that the GOP really does end up gaining control of the Senate, the next question is what they’ll actually do with that power. Michael Tomasky talked with several pundits and politicians about that possibility, and it doesn’t look pretty:
Let’s start with the bleak view. “If the Republicans win the Senate,” says Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, “the conclusion they’re going to draw is ‘obstruction works,’ and they’re going to double down on it. So they’ll be thinking, ‘Why go out of our way to do stuff and why compromise when in two years we can win it all?'”
Ornstein’s frequent collaborator, Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, thinks that while it should make sense that Republicans eyeing a 2016 White House win would want to have some accomplishments to point to, we shouldn’t bet on it. “The interests of the party in ’16 are clear, but whether that proves sufficient to produce something positive out of the Republicans in Congress is a big reach,” says Mann. “They almost have an incentive to keep the economy going at a more tepid rate.”
Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, agrees. “A GOP Senate takeover would be terrible for Obama’s presidency,” Tanden says. “It would spell the end of any progress on any legislative action and with GOP control of both houses of Congress, Republicans would set up debates to help their presidential candidates in 2016. And of course, investigations of the administration would double.”
What about the senators themselves? New York’s Chuck Schumer predicts: “It would let loose six years of right-wing frustration. The potential for gridlock is enormous.”
Two of his more liberal colleagues, Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown, emphasized the huge change in priorities we’d see if Republicans were in control of the Senate calendar. That, after all, is one of the main things a Senate majority can do—decide what does and does not get to the floor for consideration. With Mitch McConnell or any other Republican in charge of that calendar instead of Harry Reid, the Senate becomes an entirely different body.
“Their whole effort is grounded in their contempt for government,” Brown says. “On Medicare, on Social Security, on consumer protection, on regulation of Wall Street… If you want to know what a wholly Republican Congress would do, the thing to do is to look at what they’ve done in state capitals where they can. In Ohio, they’ve gone after voters’ rights, workers’ rights, women’s rights. They’d bring that to Washington.”
Or, alternatively, the GOP could try to go for a positive agenda with an eye toward 2016:
[H]ere’s the counterintuitive view, expressed by several folks: If Republicans have full control of Congress, they won’t have Harry Reid to kick around anymore. In a divided Congress, each party can point its finger at the other and say: “Obstructionist!” But if one party is running the show, the responsibility for getting results falls entirely on that party’s shoulders.
“If I were a Republican looking forward to 2016, I would actually want to get a little something done,” says William Galston of Brookings. “And if the president has any desire for his last six years to be anything other than trench warfare over the ACA [Affordable Care Act, as the Obamacare law is officially known], then maybe he’ll want to do something, too.”
Several people I spoke with noted that we do have precedent for this, and it’s hardly ancient history. “The model is the late ’90s template,” says Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute. “Maybe a little less cordial.”
Or a lot less. But he has a point. In the 1994 election, the GOP took over the House and the Senate. At first, Republicans under Bob Dole and especially Newt Gingrich threw everything they could at Bill Clinton. But after a short while, Gingrich softened, and he and Clinton did pass some things—a landmark budget, and welfare reform.
“When Newt took over, at first, they were awful revolutionaries,” says Jim Kessler of Third Way, the centrist Democratic group. “They passed things that went nowhere. It was a Bataan Death March to a dead end. Then with the shutdown [in early 1996] they went too far, and then they realized that to keep their majority they had to govern.”
Based solely on how the Republicans have behaved since Barack Obama entered office, and especially since they gained control of the House, it’s easy to conclude that the more likely scenario that we’d see unfold in the event of a GOP victory in November would be something akin to the gridlock described above. This likely wouldn’t be what the leadership in the House and Senate, not to mention national Republicans, would want, but as we’ve seen over the past four years the leadership doesn’t necessarily control the agenda. Time after time in standoffs with the White House, Republican leaders have ended up taking hard line positions not so much because that’s what they think the best thing to do is, but because they are all too aware of what can and not pass muster with their respective caucuses in the House and Senate. The classic examples of this, of course, can be found in the showdown over the debt ceiling in 2011 and the government shutdown last October. On both occasions, Republican leadership was forced to take extreme positions in negotiations with the White House and Congressional Democrats largely because their membership was demanding it and making clear that they would oppose any deals that didn’t meet their criteria. Indeed, the shutdown itself was something that the GOP leadership in both the House and the Senate opposed, but it happened anyway because the membership, principally in the House, had bought into the idea that forcing a government shutdown would somehow inure to the GOP’s benefit. With Republicans in control of both the House and the Senate, the pressure from the more extreme elements of the party to follow a similar strategy would be immense, and leadership may once again find themselves heading down a path not of their choosing.
There is the possibility, though, that Republicans will resist the pressure from their Tea Party wing to push an extreme agenda. Even before the government shutdown, there was plenty of evidence that the gridlock strategy that the Tea Party has forced the GOP to follow was harming the party. The party’s poll numbers have been low for quite some time, for example, and election results in 2012 provided the starkest evidence yet that the GOP was being hurt by its Tea Party win in the eyes of the middle of the road independent voters that actually decide elections in states like Ohio, Virginia, Florida, and Missouri. For the most part, the party establishment seemed to ignore that evidence and preferred to placate the hard right of the party, both to protect their own leadership positions and because those Tea Party groups had done well at bringing money and volunteers into the party. After the shutdown, though, that seemed to change significantly. Party leaders looked at the damage that the party has suffered in just that two week period in October, and seem to have decided that they weren’t going to allow the Tea Party to control the 2014 elections. So, we’ve seen establishment v. Tea Party battles developing in a number of states this year, most prominently in Texas, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Nebraska. So far, at least, the establishment seems to be winning this battle, but the fact that it is even occurring could indicate that leadership will resist the pressure from their far right to use a Senate majority to pursue yet more gridlock.
There is one thing we can definitely expect from Congress if the GOP retakes the Senate, though, more hearings:
Oh, and one other item would be on the agenda: oversight. Lots and lots of oversight and investigations. Just imagine Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham (if he survives his race) and Kelly Ayotte on the Armed Services Committee. Their desire to get to the bottom of Benghazi once and for all could make it difficult for Hillary Clinton just as see ramps up her run for the presidency.
Oversight and hearings are likely to be at the top of the agenda even if the Republicans fall short in their bid to take control of the Senate, of course. The House of Representatives will no doubt continue its inquiries into Benghazi, the IRS targeting scandal, and Fast & Furious. They’ll do this not so much to get to the truth in any of these matters, of course, but because of the belief that these inquiries will given them an advantage heading into 2016. This will be especially true with regard to the Benghazi attacks, because conservatives have managed to convince themselves that there is something about this “scandal” that they’ll be able use against Hillary Clinton in the Presidential election. If the GOP wins the Senate, obviously, this urge for investigation will be even stronger, and the next two years in Washington will likely be taken up by Committee hearings over matters that, according to the polls, the American public don’t even care very much about.