Election 2014

What a GOP Victory in the Senate Might Mean



With less than a week until election day, most election models continue to favor Republicans: They are favorites to pick up at least a few seats in the House and to win majority control of the Senate.

The big question, then, is what happens next. If Republicans win control of both chambers of Congress, what will they do? To a great extent, that question can be broken down into two parts: What will Republicans, who are unified mostly by opposition to Obama, agree to do? And what can Republicans do, given that Senate Democrats will still retain the ability to stymie legislation via the filibuster, and that Obama will still be president, with veto power over any legislation that succeeds in making it to his desk.

The question of agreement is one that Republicans have largely avoided in recent years (recent efforts to find positive priorities that unify the party have been so vague as to be meaningless) as opposition to the president has become the priority.

But as Molly Ball reports at The Atlantic, there are certainly Republicans who would like to take the opportunity, should it arise, to be more proactive:

…With control of both houses of Congress, Republicans would be on the hook for Congress's actions. They alone would get the blame if Congress remained dysfunctional—and they alone could claim credit if Congress actually passed bills with popular support. If Republicans passed such moderate, constructive legislation, Obama would be hard pressed to simply veto everything they put on his desk.

"The way I describe it is, we're putting the guardrails on the Obama administration's last two years," Senator Rob Portman told me in a recent interview, explaining how he envisions a Republican-controlled Senate proceeding. Needing GOP approval for nominees, Obama would have to appoint moderates to judicial and executive positions, he said. But Portman, a fiscally focused Ohio Republican who is generally conservative but believes in bipartisan compromise, sees several areas of potential cooperation with the administration. He mentioned tax reform, a "grand bargain" on the budget, an energy bill—perhaps something that combines Keystone XL pipeline approval with reductions in carbon emissions—and new free-trade agreements, which Obama has supported but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has blocked. Portman, who voted against the bipartisan immigration-reform bill that passed the Senate last year, also believes a Republican-led immigration-reform bill could pass the House and Senate and potentially be approved by Obama.

The question here is whether the rest of the party (or enough of it) would be on board with this approach. As Ball writes:

Even if Republican leaders want this to happen, the biggest obstacle will be Republicans themselves—chiefly the restive conservatives in the House, who have prevented consideration of bipartisan legislation approved by the Senate on issues like immigration and who have often prevented the party from doing what's in its own political interest (see: government shutdown). McConnell's Senate majority will include pragmatists like Portman—but also ideologues like Ted Cruz. Portman acknowledged this obstacle when I spoke to him. "We as Republicans have a real challenge to get the diversity of our ranks to work together," he said.

But even if Republicans can come together, there's still the matter of the other party. Democrats might lose the majority in the Senate, but they will retain significant ability to block legislation from even coming to the president's desk. And while Republicans might get around that by cutting deals or through the use of reconciliation, which allows for certain limited types of spending bills to move through the Senate on a simple majority vote, Obama's veto power will remain in force. Over at National Review, Ramesh Ponnuru walks through various scenarios for deal cutting and pushing legislation through the process, and concludes that, while some business-friendly deals might be possible, there are real limits on what a GOP Congress will be able to do in the next two years.

Republicans, with nominal control of the Senate, will not be able to "prove they can govern" because they will not in fact be able to govern. They can, however, work to prove that they have an attractive governing agenda, advancing legislation to reform federal policies on taxes, energy, health care, and higher education in ways that raise Americans' standard of living. Most of that legislation would fall victim to filibusters, and some of it to vetoes. Offering and fighting for it would nonetheless lay the groundwork for a successful 2016 campaign, ideally followed by the enactment of much of it.

This is basically right: It's not an opportunity to legislate so much as an opportunity to prepare to legislate. In some ways, Republicans, should they win, will be in a similar situation as Democrats were following the 2006 midterm. And during that time, Democrats teed up a variety of big-ticket issues, from the stimulus to the health care law, that would result in major legislative victories following the 2008 presidential election.

Republicans are badly in need of a brand revamp right now, and some sense of direction, post-Obama. As Nick Gillespie noted earlier today, there are a variety of ideas and policies and general attitude shifts that the party could begin to adopt to begin that process, and two years of Senate control would provide an opportunity to do so. The first item on the party's agenda, in other words, should be to have one.