It’s Nov. 5 and jubilant Republicans have captured the Senate, giving the party control of both chambers of Congress for the last two years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
The power and agenda in the Senate would shift dramatically. Republicans goals – rolling back the Affordable Care Act, approving the Keystone XL pipeline, lowering tax rates and investigating the Obama administration – would dominate Senate debate and hearings.
However, Republican control would do little to change the recipe for gridlock. The Republican majority in the Senate would almost certainly be small, well short of the 60 votes required to move any controversial legislation over the objections of the Democratic minority. Polls 10 days before Election Day suggest a GOP majority of about 51 seats.
Even if a bill objectionable to most Democrats made it through Congress, Obama holds a veto pen that might get an extensive workout through 2016. It takes 67 votes in the Senate and about 290 in the House of Representatives to override a veto, an all-but-insurmountable hurdle.
“The current level of inaction will continue,” said Paul Light, a public service professor at New York University and a former congressional fellow. “Beyond changing offices, changing staff, I don’t expect much.”
A Republican-led Congress might still have an impact. It could block any Obama nominees to the Supreme Court, up Washington’s fiscal debate by pushing Republican-crafted budgets through the House and Senate, and use the power of the purse and committee control to assert itself more in foreign policy matters.
A Republican-led Congress and Democratic White House also could find slivers of compromise on issues ranging from financial regulation to foreign trade.
“I’m not expecting a lot from a divided government, but I think we can get some positive changes. With a little bit of luck, we might get some immigration reform,” said Mark Zandi, the chief economist for Moody’s Analytics. “Honestly, divided government has produced more changes than expected. But then, the bar is pretty low.”
The oldest Supreme Court justice, Democratic appointee Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has hinted she wants to serve through at least 2016, which would leave the seat to the next president and Senate to fill. But she turns 82 next March and she’s survived several bouts with cancer, all feeding speculation that she might be the next to leave the court.
A Republican majority and the likely ascension of Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa – a frequent and vocal critic of Obama nominees – to the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee would complicate the president’s bids to fill judicial vacancies.
Even in the minority, Republicans helped slow confirmations to a trickle, with the longest delays of any of the last five presidents.
Obama also might face an additional hurdle from Grassley’s committee in filling other posts, such as that of departing Attorney General Eric Holder. While the White House is getting pressure from some circles to name Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, he’s been strongly opposed by Grassley and squeezed by on a 54-46 confirmation vote on the labor post.
There are more than 200 other nominations pending on the administration side, ranging from an ambassador for Argentina to the surgeon general’s post.
Republicans “can act with impunity holding Obama nominees,” NYU’s Light said. “Anyone thinking about moving to Washington to wait for a presidential appointment and confirmation ought to think twice.”
A Republican-led Senate, like the Republican-led House, would attack the Affordable Care Act, the signature legislation of Obama’s presidency. But instead of taking a sledgehammer to it – the House has voted more than 50 times to repeal it – a Republican-led Senate might use a scalpel.
Senate Republicans would likely move to repeal a 2.3 percent excise tax on medical devices in the law. They might find willing Democratic partners to kill the tax such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, whose states are home to medical-device manufacturers.
Last year, 79 senators – including 33 Democrats and independent Angus King of Maine – supported a nonbinding vote to repeal the tax.
A Republican-led Senate would mean that a comprehensive federal budget blueprint would pass both chambers of Congress for the first time in years.
Obama doesn’t have to sign that budget, which serves as a guidepost for spending. Those decisions are first made by appropriation committees, which would also be run by Republicans.
It would get much harder for the GOP after passing a budget blueprint. They’d have to pass any specific spending cuts, and it would take 60 votes to approve controversial reductions – notably key provisions of the health care law, major changes in social welfare programs or curbing environmental regulations – over a Democratic filibuster. Even if they got the 60 and passed them, they’d die at Obama’s desk.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the likely new majority leader in a Republican-led Senate, did signal an alternative tactic: attaching demands to needed spending bills with the assumption that the president will then agree rather than veto.
“We will be pushing back against this bureaucracy by doing what’s called placing riders in the bill,” McConnell said in a leaked audio recording. “No money can be spent to do this or to do that. We’re going to go after them on health care, on financial services, on the Environmental Protection Agency, across the board. All across the federal government, we’re going to go after it.”
After months of budget peace, other battles loom on the horizon.
The bipartisan deal negotiated late last year covers spending only through September 2015. The nation’s current borrowing authority runs out next year, raising the specter of another potentially divisive fight and prospect of a government shutdown like the 16-day partial closure last October.
“No one wants a dangerous shutdown,” said Maya MacGuineas, the president of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “You could see some reasonable compromises.”
Senate Republicans may join their House counterparts in trying to eliminate or weaken the Dodd-Frank financial regulations imposed on the banking industry in response to the Great Recession.
Zandi thinks the Senate Banking Committee and its likely chair, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, will aim just for small changes.
“We’re too far down the road” for gutting the law, Zandi said. And that pesky 60 number might come into play again.
On the trade front, Republicans might give Obama something he’s been pushing for: the power to negotiate international trade deals that Congress can approve or disapprove but not filibuster.
Most Republicans support so-called fast-track trade authority. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid doesn’t, and hasn’t brought it up for a vote.
“I’m against fast-track,” the Nevada Democrat said last January. “Everyone would be well advised just to not push this right now.”
A Republican-led Congress would likely attempt to push Obama to take a more muscular approach to Russia and hold his feet to the fire for the growth of the Islamic State group.
“They’ll try to push him,” said Anthony Cordesman, a former senior defense official who’s with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But who’ll do the pushing?
The White House would likely be dealing with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., as the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. McCain has been an outspoken critic of Obama’s troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan and the White House strategy against the Islamic State. Corker, too, has complained about Obama’s international leadership but has also forged a reputation as a consensus-building moderate.
Finally, the Senate will be a stage for the 2016 presidential campaign, particularly for Republicans looking for ways to use majority power to grab the spotlight, sometimes in conflicting ways.
At least three Republican senators – Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas – would be looking to polish foreign policy/national security credentials. Rubio and Paul are Foreign Relations Committee members. Cruz sits on the Armed Services Committee.
“If people like John McCain and Bob Corker and others end up dominating the agenda, it means pushing back against Russia, it means Iran’s sanctions aren’t lifted for no reason, it means a more aggressive stance against the Islamic State,” said Danielle Pletka, the vice president of foreign policy and defense studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
“But then there are isolationists like Rand Paul and people who like to have it both ways, like Ted Cruz. It’s a question of whether the presidential wannabes drive the agenda or people like McCain and Corker.”
Pletka thinks that Republican control of Congress would put the party in a different, and potentially uncomfortable, position on foreign policy than in the past few years under Obama.
“Fundamentally, Congress has the opportunity to use its power to change the nature of foreign policy,” she said. “It’s not about giving speeches. It’s about oversight and taking responsibility. It’s not about being adversarial. It’s about being a responsible branch of government.”