What Happens When Republicans Take the Senate?

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (R) speaks during a brief press conference with Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) after the weekly House GOP caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol June 6, 2012 in Washington, DC. The House Republican leaders said that letting the Bush tax cuts for the wealthest Americans expire would be  harmful for the economy and proposed the cuts be extended for a year so Congress could reform the tax code.
Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell?Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It seems nearly certain that Democrats will lose the Senate in two weeks, returning Congress to Republican control. The topic of conversation in Washington has now shifted to what the next two years might look like. And the short answer is, “Not pretty.”

Thankfully, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky — who will likely become Senate majority leader — has not been shy about previewing the Republican strategy. “We’re going to pass spending bills, and they’re going to have a lot of restrictions on the activities of the bureaucracy,” McConnell told Politico. “That’s something he won’t like, but that will be done. I guarantee it.”

Speaking with a group of donors, he was even blunter: “In the House and Senate, we own the budget,” he said, according to a recording obtained by The Nation. “So what does that mean? That means that we can pass the spending bill. And I assure you that in the spending bill, we will be pushing back against this bureaucracy by doing what’s called placing riders in the bill. No money can be spent to do this or to do that. We’re going to go after them on healthcare, on financial services, on the Environmental Protection Agency, across the board.”

Let’s unpack what McConnell is saying. Republicans winning the Senate does not mean that they will be able to pass any legislation they like. For one, Democrats would be able to filibuster bills in the upper chamber. More important, President Obama would be able to veto any legislation that ended up on his desk — something he has seen need to do just twice thus far in his presidency. In other words, Democrats would be able to obstruct most Republican legislation, and will have to compromise if they want to construct any of their own.

What could Republicans and Democrats come together on? There is a short list. Trade promotion authority — easing the way for the White House to pass two gigantic new pacts under negotiation — seems like a strong possibility, as does the passage of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Corporate tax reform is less likely, but potentially doable. Republicans also might pass a pared-down version of immigration reform, expanding visas for skilled immigrants and beefing up border security without touching the thorny question of what to do with the 12 million undocumented individuals already here. Democrats might not like it, but they might find such legislation hard to filibuster or to veto.

Many other Republican priorities Democrats seem set on blocking: a 20-week abortion ban, dismantling the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, gutting the Environmental Protection Agency, repealing the Affordable Care Act, block-granting Medicaid, slashing food stamps, trimming Pell Grants, and on and on. Were the Senate to try to pass stand-alone bills to accomplish any of those priorities, Harry Reid and his fellow Democrats would simply filibuster.

But there’s still a way for Republicans to get those priorities onto President Obama’s desk, the way that McConnell was referencing in his earlier comments. They can attach them to budget legislation and pass it through a process immune to the filibuster known as “reconciliation.”

Et voilà. President Obama is faced with the choice of approving a budget larded with Republican priorities he hates, or using his veto power — and thus potentially shutting down the government or even precipitating another debt-ceiling crisis.

The question then becomes how far Republicans want to push and what the White House would tolerate. Would it stomach the elimination of the Export-Import Bank? Would it allow incremental changes to the Affordable Care Act in order to keep the government’s lights on? Would it accept cuts to Social Security to avoid panic in the global markets? Let’s say that the White House did veto a Paul Ryan–authored budget bill including, for instance, big cuts to Medicaid. Would Republicans pass continuing resolutions to avoid a shutdown and give breathing room for talks? Or would they bet that voters would punish the White House, not them, for failing to keep the government going?   

In some sense, then, the next two years might look a lot like the last two years, with legislating grinding to a halt and the occasional shutdown or debt-ceiling scare. Democrats and Republicans agree on very little. There is scant evidence of anyone pivoting to the center. The choke points shift, but persist.