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.

The US Capitol Building

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.

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."

But such standoffs come with risks – as congressional Republicans learned in 1995, when they became the target of a public backlash after shutting down the government. "Last time, no one was sure how the public would react," says Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. "Turned out, they didn't like what Congress was doing."

Similarly, after President Truman lost control of Congress in 1946, he blamed the GOP for the subsequent gridlock and won reelection by railing against a "do nothing" Congress.

Of course, in the event of a major threat – a terrorist attack, or another economic emergency – the two sides would have no choice but to work together. One example of bipartisan cooperation was the relationship that developed between President Eisenhower and Democratic leaders Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson after the GOP lost control of Congress in 1952. "It was the height of the cold war," says presidential historian Robert Dallek. "There was the feeling of the need of the parties to pull together."

Even in the absence of a unifying event, Obama and the Republicans may feel pressure to find some common ground. "I don't think the leadership in Congress is going to want to have complete gridlock," says Mr. Ornstein.

One issue both sides agree on is the need for deficit reduction – though they have very different ideas about how to approach it. Analysts say they may be able to pass some trade pacts, and Obama has said he hopes to work with Republicans on education and energy.

While sweeping legislation of any kind seems unlikely, it's possible they could tackle some issues piecemeal – as Bill Clinton did after the GOP takeover in 1994. He used the setback to pivot to the center, championing policies that appealed to moderate voters, such as welfare reform.

"After the election, my hope is that people start emphasizing what we have in common," Obama said at a recent town-hall meeting.

But even if nothing gets done, it may not be all bad. Often, the economy does better when neither party can legislate at will, which could aid Obama. Peter Linneman, a real estate and financial expert, writes in his quarterly newsletter that "when it comes to government, gridlock is good for the economy, as it assures a relatively stable set of rules."

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