Why taking over the Senate may not do Republicans much good

March 17

There’s an old story about a freshman member of the House who is getting shown around by a senior member on his first day, and the freshman asks about the other party. “I want to meet the enemy,” he says. “No, son,” says the old bull, “they’re the opposition. The Senate is the enemy.” I thought about that today as the prospect of a Republican takeover of the Senate becomes more of a possibility. If the GOP controlled both houses, would Republicans be able to present a united front against President Obama, one that might actually accomplish any practical goals? There are some clues in the maneuvering that’s going on right now over health care as Republicans look forward to this fall’s elections.

House Speaker John Boehner (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
House Speaker John Boehner (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

To begin with, we should acknowledge that a Republican takeover of the upper house is anything but a sure thing. The midterms are still seven and a half months away, and a lot could happen between now and then. There could be an economic crisis, or months of solid job growth, or an alien invasion, or who knows what. But barring anything dramatic, we know it is going to be very, very close. The map is just horrible for Democrats — not only are they defending 21 seats while Republicans are defending only 15, many of those Democratic seats are in conservative states such as  Alaska, Arkansas and South Dakota, where any Democrat is going to be at a disadvantage. Combine that with the fact that the president’s party almost always loses seats in the sixth year of his presidency and with  Obama’s relatively low approval ratings (43.3 percent in the latest Huffington Post/Pollster average), and it’s going to be a nail-biter. Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball  predicts the Senate on Election Day as 48 Democrats, 49 Republicans and three toss-ups.

If the Republicans do take the Senate, they won’t have a lot of time to savor the victory, because two years later they’re going to be the ones defending more seats (see Sean Trende’s analysis for more details). That makes it entirely possible, maybe even likely, that Republicans will have control of both houses for only two years, and after 2016 we’ll go back to the way things are now. So can they legislate during that time?

To a certain degree, the question is moot as long as Obama is president. Anything big and consequential on the Republican agenda would get vetoed. But you can accomplish a lot by thinking relatively small. The question is whether Republicans — or to be more specific, House Republicans — are capable of doing that.

I’ll point you to two articles written in the last couple of days. The first, by Dylan Scott in Talking Points Memo, discusses some of the ways Senate Republicans and the insurance industry are thinking about the possibility of a GOP Senate takeover. There’s a lot of discussion about some of the features of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that might be trimmed back. Could you cut or eliminate a tax on insurance policies? What about restoring cuts to Medicare Advantage? Might you introduce a lower-level “copper” plan to be sold on the exchanges, which would be less comprehensive than the gold, silver and bronze plans?

Now let’s turn to the House. Last night, The Post’s Robert Costa reported that House Republican leaders are coalescing around an alternative to the ACA that would do some of the things Republicans have been advocating for years: repeal the ACA,  institute medical malpractice reform, let people buy insurance across state lines and a few other things.

See the difference? The senators accept that the ACA is law and are thinking about how they’d like to change it. The House members are coming up with another way to make a futile, symbolic shaking of their fists in the general direction of the White House. And this may offer a clue to how legislating would proceed in a Republican Congress. The House, still dominated by extremely conservative Republicans for whom any hint of compromise is considered the highest treason, could continue to pass one doomed bill after another, while the Senate tries to write bills that have at least some chance of ever becoming law.

And that would be just fine with Barack Obama. If he’s faced with both houses controlled by the opposition, there’s nothing he’d rather see than them fighting with each other and passing only unrealistic bills that he can veto without worrying about any backlash from the public.

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Paul Waldman | March 17