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

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.

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.

A GOP majority

Should the Republicans win the House, they would add large numbers from two competing camps: rural and Southern representatives who embrace the tea party goal of a dramatically smaller government, and Northern moderates whose backers are more interested in solutions.

Those competing interests would make it difficult for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the would-be speaker, to pass ambitious legislation such as a repeal of the health-care law. With 179 seats in Republican hands now - they need 39 for the bare 218-vote majority - even a 50-seat pickup would leave Boehner with fewer than a dozen votes to spare.

If Boehner can muscle major legislation through the House, there's little chance it would make it through a tightly divided Senate, at least in the same form. If Democrats maintain control of the Senate, there's not much chance it would survive at all.

With a Democratic caucus of 59 senators, they would have to lose 10 seats to lose control.

Regardless of who holds the gavels, Democrats predict that the new class of Republicans will make it difficult to find common ground with their own leaders, much less the opposition party.

"In the Republican primaries, the candidates who took the most extreme position won," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Friday. "That would be the danger of these guys being in the majority. Extremism, no negotiations, is what carried the day."

Van Hollen predicted that this attitude would turn off enough middle-of-the-road voters to keep the majority in Democratic hands. Even so, he acknowledged that such a result would lead to a more targeted Democratic agenda.

"There would be a focus on more bite-sized issues," Van Hollen said.

That approach could infuriate liberals and set off Democratic infighting. Liberals say the party's coming losses are the result of a lack of fortitude to approve an even bolder agenda, including initiatives such as comprehensive immigration reform.

Bipartisanship backlash

Just as troubling for those looking for compromise is the lasting effect the 2010 primary season will have on the 112th Congress, with members studying the losses this year by Sens. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) - all to primary challengers who accused them of bipartisan comity.

Consider Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who has been one of the most important dealmakers on domestic policy for the past three decades.

Hatch, who is up for reelection in 2012, is slated to become the top Republican on the Finance Committee. That would make him a critical player on every piece of legislation related to taxes and entitlements, and he would assume the post with one eye toward his state's tea party activists. Hatch is already meeting with the same activists who ousted Bennett, in an effort to avoid the same fate.

"In all honesty I always run scared," Hatch told Bloomberg Television on Friday. "I don't care who runs against me. . . . I think they know that I'm not Bob Bennett. Bob was a conservative, but I'm more conservative than he is."

On foreign policy, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.) has been the Obama administration's top Republican ally, but he too is up for reelection in 2012 and has drawn some interest from tea partiers. The same goes for Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), the most liberal Republican in the Senate.

To avoid making the same mistakes that have bedeviled parties that took over Congress in similar circumstances, senior Republicans are studying the history of large "wave" elections.

Since World War II, both the House and Senate have changed hands three times in a president's first midterm election - in 1946, 1954 and 1994 - and in each case the president was returned to office.

After 1994, Republicans over-reached in trying to eliminate federal agencies and drastically cut spending. The public recoiled during an infamous government shutdown in 1996 and granted President Bill Clinton a second term.

But McConnell and Boehner are much different from their predecessors in that period, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (Kan.).

Dole, the eventual nominee against Clinton, was running for president as soon as the Republicans won their majority. Gingrich, who spent much of 1995 mulling his own presidential bid, was considered a great thinker but a not-so-great executor of ideas. McConnell and Boehner appear to have no larger ambitions than their current jobs - just in the majority capacity.

The Senate has had plenty of recent practice with narrow majorities. In six of the past 10 years, the Senate has been split 51-49 or 50-50. McConnell said he thinks the Senate does its best work when the margins are narrower and the majority is compelled to bring in minority views. If Obama is willing to find credible central ground, McConnell said he will be able to deliver the votes, even from some of the firebrand freshmen.

"I don't think anyone should believe they were sent to Washington to do nothing," he said.

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