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No matter which party has majority after midterms, Congress poised for conflict

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By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 16, 2010; 9:31 PM

No matter who wins in November, the new Congress is almost sure to be closely divided and beset by conflict, making the prospects bleak for anything resembling President Obama's sweeping 2009 agenda or the anti-government priorities of the tea party.

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Republicans are poised to make potentially significant gains in both the House and the Senate, but even the most confident among them is predicting that they'll come away with a narrow majority. If Democrats maintain power, they, too, will have a slim advantage and will face a revived and emboldened opposition.

Members on both sides will be reacting to the angry and angst-ridden messages sent by voters. Some Republicans will be reluctant to work on centrist deals, to avoid the kinds of conservative primary challenges that upended a number of their colleagues this year. And the Democratic caucus is likely to be filled with a much larger percentage of liberals who may not be as eager as their leaders to seek consensus.

Then there's the matter of who, exactly, will be in the House and Senate. If a number of tea party favorites win, for instance, they will bring with them a defy-the-leadership mentality that could further complicate efforts at compromise, even among Republicans.

And all members will be looking ahead, not just to their own reelection bids but also to helping frame the debate for the fast-approaching 2012 presidential campaign, which will begin in earnest pretty much the day this year's election ends.

"To me, you're looking at a very dysfunctional place," said former congressman Tom Davis (R-Va.).

How the White House reacts to the changed political landscape will also affect the new dynamics on Capitol Hill. Obama could choose to push a bold agenda in hopes of setting up Republicans as obstructionists. He could also choose a moderate approach in an effort to win back support from centrist voters who have moved sharply against him.

If he opts for the latter, he will find Republican allies on the Hill, according to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

"I think the voters are going to expect that, as a result of this election, the president is going to govern as he campaigned, as a centrist," said McConnell, specifically pointing to reducing spending and the debt as issues where there's room for agreement. "We'd be interested in doing business with him."

Close divides in Congress don't always mean gridlock. In 2001, for example, a 50-50 Senate and a narrowly divided House approved landmark education legislation and expansive tax cuts with bipartisan votes.

Many observers and lawmakers said times have only grown more partisan since then, predicting that Republicans will have little incentive to cut deals with Obama so close to a presidential election that may hinge on his ability to tout bipartisan achievements.

That could make gridlock the most likely scenario for 2011, and it could come in any number of forms.


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