What if Republicans take over the Senate?

If Republicans control both houses of Congress, gridlock might only worsen. But it's possible GOP leaders and Obama find a way to deal. Republican senators are already working on an agenda for 2015.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky (c.) speaks during a news conference off the Senate floor on July 15, 2014. He is joined by other Senate GOP leaders, including, from left, Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, and minority whip John Cornyn of Texas. If Republicans take the Senate and Senator McConnell wins reelection, he will become Senate majority leader.

Two months before Election Day, the battle for the Senate is wide open. Republicans have an excellent chance of taking over, based on the map and on voter unhappiness with President Obama and the larger dysfunction in Washington.

Of course, the Democrats could hold on. Vulnerable Democratic senators are hanging tough in polls and now have an unexpected opportunity for a pickup in Kansas. But for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that Republicans do gain at least six seats and win the majority. Then what? We’re already in gridlock with just the House in GOP hands. If Republicans control both houses of Congress, do we just double down on gridlock?

Maybe, but not necessarily, analysts say. Already, Senate Republicans are quietly working on an agenda for next year that looks modest in scope but in fact could have a powerful impact on the party’s image: It could show that Republicans are interested in governing. And it’s possible that Mr. Obama, looking out for his legacy and for his party’s own image, might play along.

In the run-up to the 2016 election, “it would be in the interest of the Republican majority in both houses, should one develop, and President Obama to position their party brands as able to do business,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“Naturally, that will create a great deal of tension between the two parties, because their agendas are quite different,” he adds. “But it might well be in both their interests to look for places where they can cooperate.”

GOP Senate goals in the works include approving the Keystone XL pipeline, accelerating rules for overseas trade agreements, speeding up federal reviews of natural-gas exports, and repealing the medical-device tax in the Affordable Care Act, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“I want to put things on the president’s desk that he will have to think long and hard about and would be encouraged to sign,” Sen. John Barrasso (R) of Wyoming, chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, told the Journal.

Maybe Obama would veto it all. But at least the Republicans would have tried. And they would have shown that they’re not just about presenting the president with legislation that guts his legacy, such as a repeal of his entire health-care law.

In addition, on some measures, the Republicans may have a shot at overriding a veto. Exhibit A could be the Keystone pipeline, which counts Democratic senators among its vocal supporters.

For the Republicans, “it really is about perception,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “First, can these guys win elections? Then, can they govern?”

Senate tea partyers could also have a big hand in shaping the Republican Party’s image heading into 2016. All eyes will turn to Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, who led the charge for a government shutdown last October, as key deadlines approach. Will the country go through another round of brinkmanship over the debt ceiling next March? Will there be more budget standoffs – and the potential for reruns of the October 2013 government shutdown – if Republicans decide to attach measures that Obama opposes?

Conservative pundits are already cautioning Republicans on the potential for a train wreck in 2015 if they retake the Senate.

Republican Senate and House leaders should be crystal clear: The government stays open, and the debt ceiling gets raised,” writes Jennifer Rubin, a columnist at The Washington Post. “They don’t need to hold these items hostage, because they can bring the bills and amendments they want to the floor.”

Another variable is the 2016 presidential race, and the posture of potential candidates like Senator Cruz, Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida heading into a GOP primary. Each occupies a different space on the tea party spectrum, and how each handles himself as a senator/presidential candidate will help shape the GOP’s image.

Cruz shows no signs of toning down his confrontational rhetoric. Senator Paul has positioned himself as a truth-teller, noting for example that it cost more to shut down the government last fall than to keep it open. Senator Rubio is trying to resurrect his position as a leader on immigration reform, a key issue for the Latino vote that is crucial for Republican prospects in 2016.

The fact that the tea party was largely shut out in Senate primaries this year may bode well for the Republican leadership’s ability to corral its conference come January. That, in turn, may lead to efforts at dealmaking with Obama.

If Republicans take the Senate and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky wins reelection, he will become Senate majority leader. He and House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio “know that as congressional leaders, they have to make deals,” Professor Jillson says.

Another sphere of Senate action that would be affected by a Republican takeover is presidential nominations. The easy, but not necessarily correct, prediction is to say that nobody gets confirmed. Period. No new federal judges, no new Supreme Court justices, no new ambassadors, no new administration officials requiring Senate confirmation.

But as with legislation, both the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill and Obama will have something to prove: that they can adapt to a new reality and get things done.  

Even in the current Washington dysfunction, some high-profile nominees have gained easy confirmation. Last month, Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald was confirmed 97 to 0. In June, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell was confirmed 78 to 17.  

Ambassadors are a different story. Few nominees are getting through, and it’s taking a toll on US diplomacy, observers say. More Republican senators may make the situation worse. But then again, if Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada is out of power as Senate majority leader, that could change the calculus.

On judgeships, Obama has had better fortune, following Senator Reid’s controversial decision to trigger the “nuclear option” last November. That move eliminated the need for a 60-vote supermajority to confirm most presidential nominees (except Supreme Court justices). As a result, a slew of federal judges have been confirmed.

If Republicans retake the Senate, one question will be whether they undo the nuclear option and go back to needing 60 votes to end a filibuster. At the time, GOP leaders said that the move to a nuclear option unfairly curbed the rights of the minority.

Undoing the nuclear option “would change the dynamic for sure,” says Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law in Virginia.

If an unexpected Supreme Court vacancy arises in the next two years, all bets are off. But even there, Professor Tobias doesn’t rule out that Obama could get someone confirmed. The president would just have to select someone with a moderate profile. Nominating a moderate woman might be smart, he suggests, given the Republicans’ need to woo women voters.

All of the above may well be a best-case scenario: Republican leaders and Obama look reality squarely in the eye and decide to make the most of it. The public sees dysfunctional government as one of the nation’s top problems, and voters could reward the party that’s seen trying to solve it.  

But there are so many moving parts, it’s hard to predict. Obama doesn’t have a good track record for working with Congress and has resorted to executive action to achieve policy goals – exacerbating the animosity and triggering a lawsuit by House Republicans.

A GOP victory this November may only embolden the Republicans in trying to thwart Obama. But first, let’s have the election and see where the dust settles. 

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