Who cares about the Senate majority?

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By Marc Thiessen
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

If Republicans fall a few votes short of taking back the Senate in November, the Tea Party's detractors have their headline already written: "Extremist candidates cost GOP the majority." So let me put it out there well before Election Day: Who cares if Republicans win control of the Senate come November? If enough conservative insurgents are elected to put Republicans back in power, wonderful. But if a few falter, and the Democrats manage to keep control, that's fine as well. The Tea Party isn't going anywhere. Better to wait another election cycle and make certain the next Republican majority is a fiscally conservative majority.

The uprising of 2010 is not about a Republican restoration; it is about a Republican reformation. Conservative insurgents are running not only to change Washington but to change the GOP and restore its reputation as the party of fiscal discipline. Ken Buck, the Tea Party-backed Republican senate nominee on Colorado, puts it this way: "Republicans have been a big part of the problem. I'm not going to Washington, D.C., to fit in with big-spending Republicans." Insurgents like Buck recognize that the GOP's imminent electoral success masks a deep-seated problem: Republicans in Congress are even less popular than the Democrats. A recent Associated Press poll found that while 60 percent of the country disapproves of the job Democrats are doing on Capitol Hill, 68 percent disapprove of the job Republicans are doing. If Republicans were to gain the majority and return to their big-spending ways, the damage to the party's reputation could be permanent. That would be a much greater disaster for the GOP than failing to take control this time around.

Some will object that winning the majority matters in countless ways -- from controlling committees to setting the legislative agenda. But in the Senate, the minority has a great deal of power -- and a Republican minority strengthened by an influx of new conservative senators would have the ability to stand up to Obama and the Democrats.

When Republicans had just 40 votes, it was a disaster -- because Democrats were able to ram through radical legislation, such as Obamacare, on party-line votes. Having 41 was an improvement, but just barely, since all it took was one Republican defection for the Democrats to overcome a GOP filibuster. The Democrats succeeded in passing the stimulus, financial regulatory reform, and small business legislation (a.k.a. "son of TARP") with just a few Republican accommodationists crossing over to join them. But if there are 47, 48 or 49 Republicans, the accommodationists lose their influence. A half-dozen Republicans could vote with the Democrats, and the GOP would still have enough votes to block the worst elements of the Obama agenda. And when the usual suspects threaten to bolt on a big vote, instead of causing an intraparty crisis, the response will be a big yawn.

The arrival of conservative insurgents will fundamentally transform the Senate in other ways. Some of the worst bills in the Senate get approved by unanimous consent, which means all it takes is one senator to object. Today, for example, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma wages a lonely campaign for fiscal discipline by objecting to authorization bills where spending increases are not offset by spending cuts elsewhere. But it gets tiring being the skunk at the garden party every week. Soon there will be a raft of newly elected senators willing to join him in saying "no" to bad legislation.

This will not only make it easier for conservatives to block wasteful spending, it will have a ripple effect throughout the rest of the Republican conference. There is courage in numbers. The arrival of conservative insurgents will embolden more senators to vote for fiscal restraint. And if courage isn't a motivating factor, fear will be. Which GOP senator wants to be the next Mike Castle, Bob Bennett or Lisa Murkowski? Republicans up for reelection in 2012 will be looking over their shoulder every time they go to the Senate floor, knowing a bad vote could spark a primary challenge from a conservative insurgent and cost them their seats. That alone should save the American taxpayers billions.

Bottom line: Positive change in the Senate does not depend on the GOP taking the majority in November. Besides, even if Republicans were to win the House and Senate, President Obama is not likely to respond by declaring "the era of big government is over." The only way to end the era of big government is to elect a majority of fiscal conservatives.

If that requires a few election cycles, so be it.

Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and writes a weekly column for The Post.

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