Now that a GOP Senate takeover is looking more likely, Republicans are already spinning in advance that GOP control of both chambers will usher in a new era of more constructive Republican governance and bipartisan happy feelings.
Perhaps the most ambitious promise along these lines comes from the number two House Republican, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who says that if Republicans don’t use their new majority to show they can govern, they will be toast in 2016:
McCarthy’s vision is a departure from the last four years under former Majority Leader Eric Cantor, when brinksmanship and dysfunction ruled. Now, alienated voters must be won back to have a shot at the White House in 2016…
McCarthy is intently focused on the first few months in session, which he sees as critical for his agenda. He would like to use the lame-duck session to pass a long-term government-funding bill, so Washington can begin focusing on big-picture legislating, instead of just trying to keep government’s doors open.
Barring more detail, it’s hard to know what to make of this, but if House Republicans really are mulling a long-term spending bill, to clear the decks for more legislating, that would be newsworthy! It would presumably mean no more relying on government funding battles to force concessions from Democrats, something conservatives would probably be unlikely to accept.
Indeed, McCarthy might want to check in with Mitch McConnell on this. After all, McConnell has vowed explicitly that a GOP Senate majority will use government funding bills to bring President Obama to his knees:
The emerging strategy: Attach riders to spending bills that would limit Obama policies on everything from the environment to health care, consider using an arcane budget tactic to circumvent Democratic filibusters and force the president to “move to the center” if he wants to get any new legislation through Congress. In short, it’s a recipe for a confrontational end to the Obama presidency.
“We’re going to pass spending bills, and they’re going to have a lot of restrictions on the activities of the bureaucracy,” McConnell said in an interview aboard his campaign bus traveling through Western Kentucky coal country. “That’s something he won’t like, but that will be done. I guarantee it.”
I asked Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein if there’s any way to reconcile these two approaches.
“There is no way to reconcile what McCarthy said with what McConnell said,” Ornstein told me. “McCarthy is saying, `We don’t want confrontations. We don’t want the spending process to be the weapon we use to force Obama to roll back his accomplishments.’ McConnell is saying, `We have a weapon. It’s the spending process. And we’re going to use that to force Obama’s hand.'”
McConnell has stopped short of promising outright to shut down the government to get the GOP’s way. But as Brian Beutler has explained, he did vow to use the spending process to force maximum confrontation, with the explicit goal of rolling back the previously achieved policy gains of the Obama era, something that makes government shutdowns more likely.
And ultimately, this is the key question that is highlighted by the McCarthy and McConnell quotes: Will a Republican majority in both houses put aside the fixation with going after already-litigated Obama policies, and instead stake out an affirmative, forward-looking GOP governing agenda? That’s what McCarthy seems to be promising, in the full knowledge that budget brinksmanship has dragged down the GOP’s image among the swing voters Republicans will need to win back in the next election, which won’t unfold on a red state-dominated battleground. As Bloomberg View explains, there are avenues where Republicans could develop an affirmative agenda, around tax reform and infrastructure spending, but that would require some accommodation with Democrats — and telling the base the truth about the folly of shaping everything around rearguard actions against Obama.
McConnell appears to be suggesting the fixation with targeting Obama’s policies will continue. McConnell has said this more than once: He reiterated this game plan in a secretly recorded audio of a speech to a Koch conclave, vowing to big donors that the GOP majority would target Obama policies on health care, Wall Street reform, and the environment.
It’s possible this is all bluster for the base from McConnell. Conservatives don’t believe he’s serious about going after Obama policies. But if Republicans take the Senate, they will widely claim a mandate against the ACA and other Obama achievements, revving up the base’s expectations for action against those policies that could prove hard to control.
Amusingly, even as McConnell has vowed to go after Obama policies, his spokesman is simultaneously trying to spin the idea that a Republican-controlled Senate will bring about more bipartisan cooperation, because McConnell will allow the minority more amendments than Harry Reid did. But, like Jonathan Chait, I’m skeptical this will amount to anything. Once Democrats push amendments designed to create tough votes for GOP Senators up for reelection in 2016 in blue or purple states, McConnell’s noble commitment to bipartisan comity may evaporate pretty quick.
So, no, a GOP majority in both chambers probably won’t increase the prospects for an outbreak of constructive governance and bipartisan magnanimity.