The Capitol (Bonnie Jo Mount)

So what can we expect from the 113th Congress, and what might it do on issues such as budgeting, gun control, immigration, and other areas in which the White House agenda went nowhere in the last two years?

I’m slightly more optimistic than many others about the prospects for compromise with the White House — and even legislative action. A look at the history explains why.

The 104th House of Representatives in 1995-1996 featured dozens of self-styled revolutionary Republicans, bent on bulldozing a Democratic President of the United States for whom they had little if any respect and who began 1995 with depressed approval ratings. The climax was a weeks-long shutdown of the government which ended with a total defeat for the Republicans and an easily re-elected president. In the 105th Congress, the revolutionaries were mostly quieter and almost tamed…except that they did manage the fiasco of impeaching that president.

The late, unlamented 112th House was just about as good a comparison to the 104th as you’ll ever get. So what does the Clinton/Newt era suggest about what’s ahead?

First of all, the main and important difference: instead of a relatively conciliatory Republican Senate, we have a newly revitalized Democratic Senate. We can expect a far more energetic liberal wing, with several new liberal Senators (Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin, and more) and other liberals gaining seniority. These active Senators will have a strong interest in getting bills passed, which may make them more effective in seeking areas of common interest even with conservative Republicans.

What about the House? The rejectionist caucus gets a little smaller this year. But that group of a dozen to sixty House Republicans has never really been the issue; it’s the hundred or more mainstream conservatives who aren’t nuts but are terrified of allowing any daylight between themselves and whatever Michele Bachmann or Louis Gohmert or Rush Limbaugh or Grover Norquist sets as the “conservative” party line that constitute the real problem. 

And so a key question will be this:  Will the mainstream conservatives finally decide that the cost of making the House — and the GOP as a whole — an object of ridicule is higher than the cost of risking a RINO label?

I think it’s possible. The experience of the 105th House suggests some of the Tea Party crowd may start to realize that losing symbolic votes, or winning them in the House only to see bills die in the Senate, is pretty much a waste of time — and that if Republicans really want to make serious progress on their own agenda, the only practical way to do that is to find areas of compromise.

Specific issues matter, too. On some issues, such as gun law reform, Republicans will be unlikely to budge from the NRA position. But on issues like immigration (where the GOP worries about Latino votes), tax reform (where Republicans may support closing high end loopholes), and health care (where the zeal to repeal Obamacare may wane), GOP elites are much less unified. We may see opportunities for cooperation between Dems and some Republicans.

It’s true that much has changed since 1997. The Republican partisan press is far better developed, and almost certainly far more tempting for Members to grandstand for than it was back then. It’s possible that playing to Obama-hatred is even more necessary now to keep core Republican constituencies happy than Clinton-hatred was back then.

But there’s reason for cautious optimism. While I expect spasms of lunacy to continue throughout the next two years, beyond that, there’s at least some reasonable hope that this Congress may not be quite as awful as the one that just ended.