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Election 2012: In Senate, a mighty struggle to maintain status quo

The battle for the Senate now looks like a standoff with neither Republicans nor Democrats likely to win the 60 seats needed for political control. Will partisan gridlock change after Election 2012?

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That amount doesn't compare with the $12.5 million spent just on the Republican Senate primary in Texas, but money goes a lot further in Big Sky country.

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"It's just amazing ... all this money and sway in a state of a million people [with] 300,000 voters – a lot of them who have already made up their minds," says Parker.

Republicans are hurting, too, because two Senate races they had expected to lock up may now be irretrievable.

The Missouri seat, held by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D), was the GOP's top takeover target. But GOP challenger Todd Akin's errant comments about "legitimate rape" and conception have probably derailed his campaign.

And in Maine, GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe's abrupt announcement earlier this year that she planned to retire threw that previously "safe" seat into the hopper. Former Gov. Angus King, an independent who many believe will caucus with Democrats, leads a three-way battle there.

Postelection, will Washington work again?

Gridlock didn't begin with the tea party-fueled wave of House Republicans in 2010, as Democrats say. It also didn't set in, as Republicans argue, with a recalcitrant Senate failing to pass a budget since 2009.

Rather, Congress's recent standstill took root after the 2006 midterm election, when Senate Republicans latched onto the filibuster, a procedure used to halt votes on legislation barring a 60-vote supermajority, as a tool to exert the will of the minority party, says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey.

Republicans "decided to use the power of the minority in an extremely aggressive fashion," he says.

Since 1917, motions to end Senate filibusters have been made some 1,300 times. Nearly one-third date from the three terms of Congress since 2007.

Could this election outcome shake up that dynamic? It's not likely.

Neither party has a plausible path to 60 votes. And freshman lawmakers, no matter how strong their bipartisan intentions, have a hard time breaking through – just ask Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia, a popular former governor who in his first term has led a thus-far quixotic charge for a bipartisan debt-reduction deal.

The "reality is that the institution – the way it's structured, the way in which the parties conduct their business – is set in place," Mr. Zelizer says. "There's a lot of pressure from the Senate leadership of each party to toe the party line."

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