Magazine | November 3, 2014, Issue

A Senate to Come

Even with a majority, Republicans can’t do much before 2017

Don’t expect the results of the Senate elections to change the policies of the federal government very much over the next two years. Overthrowing Harry Reid isn’t going to yield tax reform or rein in the EPA. It may not even mean a go-ahead for the Keystone pipeline.

Let’s assume the Republicans win narrow control of the Senate, holding 51 to 53 seats instead of their current 45. They would then be able to slow down the pace at which President Obama’s nominees, especially his judicial nominees, were confirmed, and perhaps force him to put up less liberal ones. That’s important, but it’s a negative achievement.

Positive achievements will be harder to come by. The Republicans’ winning six to eight seats — in a midterm election, and mostly in red states — is not going to make the Obama administration veer rightward to make deals with them. Nor would those election results scare the remaining Senate Democrats into cooperating with the Republicans. (It might be different if Republicans swept the close races, won some upsets, and came in with 55 or 56 seats.)

Democrats are instead going to assume that they have a good shot at taking the Senate back in 2016. That fall, Republicans will be defending several seats they won in blue states in their 2010 mini-landslide — and they will be doing so in a presidential-election year, which means that Democratic turnout can be expected to be better than it was then. Democrats will be eyeing the seats of first-term Republicans in Illinois, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, and New Hampshire, all states that went for President Obama twice. Democrats think they are on the way up in Georgia and Arizona, too, where incumbent Republicans could retire.

The assumption that the Democrats will do well in 2016 because “the map favors them” could turn out to be mistaken. “The map” was supposed to favor Republicans in the 2006 Senate races. But it was such a bad year for them that they lost six seats, including four in states that George W. Bush had carried twice. If the public is unhappy enough with Democrats in 2016, they won’t make the gains they expect. But the assumption that they will make those gains will nonetheless affect their behavior in 2015.

The effect of Republican wins will be to make the Senate Democrats, as a group, more liberal rather than less. Republicans will have won their majority in large part by defeating red-state Democrats who felt compelled to feint rightward from time to time. (Many of the Senate Democrats who favor the Keystone pipeline are on this year’s target list.) Senate Democrats will therefore feel few compunctions about filibustering Republican legislation.

The two things Republicans would most want to do with control of both houses of Congress involve getting popular conservative legislation to the president’s desk. If the president signs the legislation, public policy moves rightward. If he vetoes it, he pays a political price and Republicans can tell the public they need to elect more of their party’s candidates in the next election. There is a tradeoff between these goals: A party with a commanding position in both houses of Congress facing an opposing-party president has to choose whether to pass something the president could conceivably sign or something that he will feel obliged to veto. For the most part, Republicans will be spared that choice if they win the Senate. They won’t be able to pass much legislation in the first place.

We can predict that this frustrating situation will cause Republicans to lash out at one another. During the struggles over the government shutdown and the debt ceiling in 2013, Republicans who urged caution often said that conservatives needed to understand how little could be accomplished with a majority in only one of the two legislative chambers. The truth is that they cannot accomplish much more with control of both chambers, but those words will be flung in Republican leaders’ faces. The result could be another round of budget brinkmanship, depending on how many Republicans are under the impression that refusing to raise the debt ceiling or fund the government gives conservatives leverage to force the Democrats to go along with their policy goals.

An unrealistic sense of how sharply they can turn national policy right will be one source of trouble for Republicans. Another will be the desire of legislators, especially those who fear difficult reelection campaigns in 2016, to prove they can “get things done” and “prove Republicans can govern.” That fear and that desire will militate in favor of compromising with the Democrats.

On most issues, though, deals are hard to imagine because the parties are simply too far apart. Business-friendly policies offer the best chances for deal-cutting. An amendment to repeal Obamacare’s device tax got 79 votes in the Senate last year because a lot of affected companies are located in blue states, for example. A bill to give the president the authority to negotiate trade deals could also garner enough support from both parties to pass. Even on these issues, however, apparent agreements sometimes mask deep disagreements. Both parties say they want to bring corporate tax rates down, for example, but they cannot agree on how to make up for the lost revenue or whether to give small businesses tax relief, too.

For a Republican Congress to define itself by pro-business accomplishments would also court two risks. The lesser one is that conservatives would constantly be grumbling. The greater one is that the party would reinforce its overidentification with the interests of corporate America and miss the chance to associate itself with a more attractive agenda.

If Republicans take the Senate, one of the key strategic questions they will have to answer is how to use the “reconciliation” process. That’s a way around the filibuster. During each congressional session, the majority can pass one bill concerning taxes and spending that is immune to filibusters. It therefore creates the Republicans’ surest opportunity to get something to Obama’s desk — and will therefore occasion a lot of internal debate over what to put in the bill.

Some Republicans, craving an accomplishment to tout, will want a bill Obama can sign. Some will want to cram as much of the Republican platform as they can into the bill. While we are several months from the event and circumstances can change, neither impulse seems likely to lead anywhere good.

Using reconciliation to get a bill enacted would be a waste of the process: Obama is not going to sign a bill that Senate Democrats are willing to filibuster, and they are not going to filibuster a bill that he is willing to sign. A Republican wish list, on the other hand, would probably become a political fiasco, with its least popular element quickly becoming the only part of it discussed. The better course is to prepare for a veto and try to ensure that it’s a veto that helps rather than hurts conservatives: that is, to make sure that the controversial provisions the reconciliation bill contains are all vote winners.

Republicans, with nominal control of the Senate, will not be able to “prove they can govern” because they will not in fact be able to govern. They can, however, work to prove that they have an attractive governing agenda, advancing legislation to reform federal policies on taxes, energy, health care, and higher education in ways that raise Americans’ standard of living. Most of that legislation would fall victim to filibusters, and some of it to vetoes. Offering and fighting for it would nonetheless lay the groundwork for a successful 2016 campaign, ideally followed by the enactment of much of it.

Conservatives should lower their expectations for 2015. But that does not mean that the Senate elections this year are unimportant. It just means that much of their importance will become clear in 2017 and 2018. The last two years of the Obama presidency are not going to see what conservatives would consider great improvements in national policy. Good thing senators are elected for six-year terms.

Ramesh Ponnuru — Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg View, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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