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How Election 2014 could create a Charlie Brown Congress

Remember when Lucy takes the ball away from Charlie Brown? That could be Congress and President Obama next year. Or maybe they take a page from President Clinton's book and actually work together. Here are three reasons for hope and for caution. 

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    If the Senate goes Republican and Sen. Mitch McConnell wins reelection, he'd likely have to leave the Obama-bashing on the campaign trail in Russellville, Ky., if the Senate and President Obama were to get along.
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If Republicans win control of the Senate on Nov. 4 – and thus gain full control of Congress – it just might be that more gets done in Washington, rather than less, that dysfunction sputters into some semblance of function, and that Republicans and President Obama cooperate a bit more with each other.

At least, that’s what happened after the 1994 midterms, when President Clinton worked with a GOP Congress in the wake of the “Republican Revolution.” 

Or maybe it would be more like the Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy holds the football for Charlie Brown, urging him to kick it. Everyone knows what happens next. We'll let you guess who Mr. Obama is in this scenario. 

Recommended: Who wins Senate in Election 2014? 3 reasons it could be mystery for weeks.

So what would happen with a Republican Senate? Who knows? But here are three reasons to be optimistic about a more bipartisan Washington, three reasons to be on your guard – and, to end, a glimmer of hope.

A more bipartisan Washington:

Republican leaders say they want to govern. House majority leader Kevin McCarthy (R) of California – still pretty new on the job – is telling Republicans they have to show they can govern in the next two years if they want to have any hope of winning the presidency in 2016.

And Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky – who would be the likely Senate majority leader if he and enough Republicans win – says he wants to restore the Senate to its tradition of deliberation and debate, allowing both sides to bring up amendments, even if some of them put his own members at risk. “The Senate needs to run in a more collegial and open way,” he told Time magazine earlier this year.

Republicans lawmakers are already identifying areas that might garner bipartisan support, for instance in energy and trade.

At last, voters say they want compromise.  An Oct. 29 Monitor/TIPP poll found that 61 percent of respondents agreed that a member of Congress "should compromise to get things done" as opposed to 39 percent who said they "should stand on their principles no matter what."

An Oct. 15 poll by The Wall Street Journal and NBC News came back with similar results. Voters were asked whether they would prefer a candidate “who will make compromises to gain consensus on legislation,” or a candidate who sticks to his position “even if this means not being able to gain consensus on legislation.” Voters opted for compromise 50 percent to 42 percent. Last midterm election, 57 percent of respondents to the Journal/NBC News poll wanted a candidate who would stand his ground while 34 percent favored compromise. 

Politics favor it. Highly partisan, ideological positions can work in midterms where races are focused in states and districts, but they are harder to carry in national elections. Two years hence, a presidential candidate will have to have national appeal, including in some purple states like Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada. Hence, Representative McCarthy’s big concern about showing that Republicans can govern. And speaking of presidents, Obama has his legacy to consider. 

At the same time, the Senate electoral map looks much more punishing for the GOP in 2016, with Republicans having to defend seats in states that went for Obama in 2012. That argues for less flame throwing, because they will need to show voters that they accomplished something.

A still-partisan Washington:

The challenge of GOP primaries. It may appear that the tea party was vanquished in this year's GOP primaries, but trend lines show these contests are becoming more competitive, not less, said Amy Walter of the independent Cook Political Report at a Bipartisan Policy Center event on Thursday. Incumbents will have to keep themselves ideologically pure, because that’s what their base wants. Which brings us to the next point.

Not all voters want compromise. Ms. Walter points out that while a majority of voters may now favor compromise over political purity, that’s not true of the majority of Republicans. She points to polling that shows 60 percent of Republicans favor sticking to positions over compromise. Among tea party supporters, only 30 percent support compromise.

“This is not a group of voters that says ‘I want to see a Republican leadership that goes out and works with the president.’ ”

Ingrained partisanship. Not just the politicians, but also the population has grown more partisan – in the media they digest, in the people they marry, in the places they live, and in their state governments, experts point out.

If Republicans win control of the Senate, any new bipartisanship “will last about a week,” quips Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who was also at the Bipartisan Policy Center event. Republicans will bring up “messaging” amendments designed to put Democrats on record for the purpose of skewering them in the next election and Democrats will do the same.

Indeed, political observers say that leaders in a GOP-controlled Congress may be unable to manage the highly partisan forces coming at them from both sides – tea party lawmakers who have something to prove (especially if they run for president in 2016) and Democrats who want to again run against the party of "no."

But here’s the promised glimmer of hope:

It shines from lawmakers themselves. On both sides, it is not uncommon to hear them vent deep frustration over the gridlock under the Capitol dome – sort of like Charlie Brown’s “AAAAAARGH!” From seniors to newbies, they confide in colleagues – and reporters – that they did not come to Washington to do nothing.

Pressure to compromise, perhaps, might be building on leaders not only from the outside the Capitol, but from inside as well.

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