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Would losing control of Congress to Republicans help Obama?

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By Dana Milbank
Sunday, January 31, 2010

Last week the opposition party wrote a startling new entry in the Annals of Obstruction: Republicans were so determined to deny President Obama an achievement that a group of them voted against their own proposal.

A month ago, a bipartisan group of senators asked Obama for his "strong support" for a commission to solve the national debt crisis. "We don't recommend this special process lightly," they wrote, calling it "the best way to reach a lasting bipartisan solution that will put our nation back on a sound long-term fiscal path."

One of the signatories, Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), issued a news release trumpeting his sponsorship of the legislation. "Now is the time," he proclaimed.

On second thought, maybe not. Obama heeded the letter writers' advice and backed the commission. But when the proposal came to a vote on the Senate floor Tuesday, four of the Republican signers -- Crapo, Kay Bailey Hutchison (Tex.), Jim Inhofe (Okla.) and Robert Bennett (Utah) -- voted no. So did three other Republican senators who had also been co-sponsors of the legislation -- 2008 presidential nominee John McCain (Ariz.), Sam Brownback (Kan.) and John Ensign (Nev.). An eighth co-sponsor, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), didn't vote.

Thanks to these defections, the commission legislation fell seven votes short -- and with it went any hope of tackling the debt crisis anytime soon. Even by recent standards, this may be a new level of legislative fecklessness.

Indeed, there's only one way to punish Republicans for this irresponsible behavior: Give them control of Congress.

That's not an idea Democrats are likely to embrace. But it's tempting to wonder whether Obama might have better luck under a Republican Congress.

The logic was inadvertently floated this week by no less an authority than Vice President Biden, who told a group of Democratic Party leaders that the 60-seat supermajority in the Senate wasn't necessarily a good thing. "There was the expectation, left, right and center, that we could do everything we wanted to do, which was never realistic," the vice president said. "When it's 60, the Republicans can afford to say they need not participate at all." By contrast, "having 59 votes in the Senate also means something for the Republicans: They are going to have to be accountable as well."

Biden is correct that Republicans had no political incentive to participate. But, taking Biden's analysis to its logical conclusion, it's hard to see how the shift from a 60-seat Democratic supermajority to a 59-seat Democratic jumbo-majority is going to give Republicans enough ownership of the outcome to move them from reckless to responsible. If that happens at all, it would probably not happen until Republicans control one or both chambers.

Voters seem to get this implicitly. In a CNN poll this week, a plurality, 48 percent, now think it's bad for the country that Democrats control Congress. At the end of 2006, when Democrats gained control of Congress and a Republican was in the White House, only 24 percent thought Democratic control was undesirable.

Under a divided government, party purists on both sides have less leverage to block compromise. This may help to explain the counterintuitive finding by Yale political scientist David Mayhew, who determined in his study "Divided We Govern" that unified governments were no more likely to produce substantial legislation than divided ones.

Few would regard the government shutdown of 1995 as the good old days in American government. But in retrospect, Bill Clinton may not have been able to triangulate himself to victory in '96 if he couldn't campaign against the Republican Congress -- and he may not have been able to return the federal budget to balance without Republicans to cut the deal in '97.

Since then, a Democratic minority has proved that it can defeat a Republican president's signature domestic initiative (Social Security reform), and a Republican minority has proved it can bottle up Obama's health-care, climate-change and banking proposals.

There is a risk that so many Republicans have become so ideological in their opposition that, even in control of Congress, they would use their increased power to bring the government to a halt.

Then again, the government is already paralyzed. When Republicans are so eager to thwart the president that they vote against what they themselves believe is in the national interest, we've pretty much reached rock bottom.

danamilbank@washpost.com


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