With 2014 won, GOP looks ahead to next race: 'to turn this country around'

More than anything else, the 2016 presidential election will determine how Republicans manage their new majority in the US Senate and their even stronger grip on the House.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, joined by his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, celebrates with his supporters at an election night party in Louisville, Ky.,Tuesday.
Brennan Linsley/AP
Senator-elect, U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner (R) of Colorado delivers his victory speech to supporters during the GOP election night gathering at the Hyatt Regency Denver Tech Center, in Denver, Colo., on Election Day, Tuesday Nov. 4, 2014. Gardner beat his Democratic opponent, incumbent Sen. Mark Udall.

Now that America has voted in Election 2014, it’s time to consider 2016 – because more than anything else, the next election will determine how Republicans manage their new majority in the US Senate and their even stronger grip on the House.

Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, the expected new majority leader, said as much in his victory speech in Kentucky Tuesday night:

“The papers will say I won this race,” he said, “but the truth is, tonight we begin another one … and that’s the race to turn this country around.” 

Expect that race to compel the GOP to show stark contrasts with Democrats, in oversight hearings and in sending to the president bills that he is sure to veto – as happened with Republican President George W. Bush in his last two years in office, after Congress swung completely to Democrats.

High on the list is repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Senator McConnell is also interested in trying to roll back regulations, particularly relating to carbon emissions, of vital importance to the Kentucky coal industry.

At the same time, Republican leaders in both chambers say they want to put forth a mix of small- to medium-bore legislation that can gain bipartisan support – to show voters that Republicans are capable of governing, and are not simply obstructionists.

“I do think we have an obligation to work together on issues where we can agree,” McConnell said of his relationship with President Obama. “Just because we have a two-party system doesn’t mean we have to be in perpetual conflict.”

How this works in practice remains to be seen. 

Even before the election, Senate and House Republicans were considering legislation that could gain bipartisan support: tax reform, rules that would ease the president’s ability to negotiate a pan-Asian free trade agreement, prison-sentencing reform, and energy exports and development.

But some of the Democrats who supported the Keystone XL pipeline, for instance, have lost their races, including Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana is headed to a runoff on Dec. 6 that polls show she is likely to lose.

And some Democrats will want to block GOP efforts, just as Republicans blocked Democrats.

“My guess is you are going to see an effort by some Democrats to sabotage,” says McConnell spokesman Don Stewart.

But so may some tea party Republicans. Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, a tea party darling who is eyeing a presidential bid in 2016, has sharp elbows and hard-line positions. When asked by The Washington Post whether he would vote for Mr. McConnell as majority leader, he did not pledge his support.

In a Senate where it takes only one person to filibuster – and 60 votes to overcome that filibuster – Senator Cruz alone can do considerable damage.

“I think that Cruz is a particular problem, because he more than [others] has decided he’s going to break some crockery,” says Ross Baker, a congressional expert at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

But the senator who led the partial government shutdown last fall is also on the same page with the GOP leadership on many issues, including the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. 

McConnell’s spokesman, Mr. Stewart, describes “a buffet” of options – from partial to full repeal, which his boss supports. 

These actions would face a presidential veto except, perhaps, for something like repealing a tax on medical devices, which enjoys some bipartisan report. 

In a statement, Sen. Harry Reid, the outgoing Democratic majority leader from Nevada, said of Tuesday’s election: “The message from voters is clear: they want us to work together.”

Political observers say the coming presidential election – in which Republicans will have to show national appeal and defend Senate seats in blue states – will encourage some modest dealmaking.

But it also will encourage clash, so that the GOP can vividly show voters a choice.

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