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Election 2010: What gets done if the GOP takes over Capitol Hill

GOP control of one or both houses of Congress after Election 2010 would be seen as a setback for President Obama. But history shows that divided government can work to a president's advantage.

By Correspondent / October 28, 2010

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If Republicans capture one or both Houses of Congress in the midterm elections, it will almost certainly be seen as a setback for President Obama – a blow to any remaining big-ticket items on his legislative agenda and a repudiation of some already passed. But if history is any guide, Mr. Obama may actually benefit in some ways from having Republicans run Congress for the next two years.

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In the decades since World War II, divided government – one party controlling Congress while the other occupies the White House – has become more common than not. While polls show voters aren't overly happy with either party right now, they seem increasingly comfortable when the president's power is checked. Indeed, among modern presidents who have lost control of Congress in their first midterm election, all have gone on to win a second term.

Analysts say a divided government would present both opportunities and challenges for Obama and the newly empowered congressional leaders. "It doesn't mean that everything will grind to a halt," says Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute here. "But you're likely to see, as you always do, an overinterpretation of a mandate" by the party coming into power.

That could mean a series of showdowns. Even if Republicans only take the House, the new committee chairmen will be able to launch public investigations into Obama's policies. Republicans also vow to undo some recently passed legislation – notably, Obama's health-care reform. Any attempt at outright repeal would be largely for political effect: They almost certainly won't gain the seats to overturn a presidential veto. But they may be able to block funding for parts of the law.

Some members already promise a larger battle with the president over spending that could lead to a government closure. "If the government shuts down, we want you with us," Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R) of Georgia told a conservative audience at a recent Faith and Freedom Coalition meeting. "It's going to take some pain to do the things we need to do to right the ship."

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