Democrats Brace for Republican Victory in House
Policy + Politics

Democrats Brace for Republican Victory in House

Republicans appear to be on the verge of winning back control of the House for the first time in four years and they are threatening the Democrats’ hold on the Senate. Such a turnabout would pave the way for the GOP’s agenda of smaller government, reduced spending and the repeal of President Obama’s economic, financial and health care initiatives. 

Yet the latest polling and political analysis suggest that the Nov. 2 midterm election could be a lot closer than many have assumed, and that the Republicans could end up with a majority in the House so narrow that legislative stalemate would be the norm and little would be decided until the 2012 presidential election.

After spending much of the past two years vigorously opposing Obama’s $814 billion economic stimulus package, his health care reform and overhaul of the financial regulatory system, House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., now are signaling an eagerness to find common ground with Obama on key economic and budget issues -- provided the president meets them at least half way. With the president’s popularity at a near-record low and archconservative and libertarian Tea Party candidates generating excitement and interest throughout the country, Republican leaders feel the political wind at their backs.

“Republicans want to get spending down, they want to get the debt down, they want to do something serious about entitlement reform,” Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman, told The Fiscal Times on Tuesday. “If the president wants to do those things, great, and if he doesn’t want to do those things, it’s not just going to be the Tea Party raising objections, it’s going to be everybody.”

But former Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, a Washington lawyer and political commentator says, “The Tea Party has caused such problems that incumbent Republicans are going to be constantly looking over their shoulder and they are going to worry that they’ll be taken out in the primary if they cooperate with the Democrats,” Frost said.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the chairman of the Republican senators’ campaign committee, said over the weekend on Fox News Sunday that if Obama continues to try to “jam things through to support the left,” he will encounter stiff Republican resistance. “But if he’s willing to work with us, as Bill Clinton did after the 1994 elections, to pass things like welfare reform, trade agreements and the like, we’ll certainly work with him.”

But with GOP leaders regularly denouncing the stimulus package and berating Obama’s efforts to lead the nation out of one of the worst recessions in U.S. history, the president is in a fighting mood and has attacked Republicans by declaring that he won’t allow the country to return to the discredited economic, regulatory and budget strategies of the Bush era “that will get us back into a mess.”

Republicans may be in store for
another round of rocky leadership battles.

Moreover, some Democrats and political experts warn that Boehner, McConnell, Cornyn and other prominent Republican leaders are riding a tiger of sorts by embracing the surging Tea Party. If some of the Tea Party candidates for Senate win their races next month – including anti-government types such as Rand Paul of Kentucky, Sharron Angle of Nevada and Joe Miller of Alaska – it could presage an era of GOP tumult and leadership challenges. Just as Newt Gingrich pushed aside old-guard Republican leaders en route to becoming speaker in 1994 and later was challenged by some of his own political lieutenants, including Boehner, Republicans may be in store for another round of rocky leadership battles. 

A handful of prominent Republican incumbents, including Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware and Sens. Robert F. Bennett of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, were defeated this year in their party primaries after running afoul of Tea Party advocates. “I see these people as zealots and people who really demand a very high level of party discipline,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. “And I think it will be very, very much harder for the White House to find a negotiating partner, at least in the House, and probably in the Senate as well.”

The Democrats currently control the House, 255 to 178, with two vacancies, and they have a 59-to-41 seat advantage over the Republicans in the Senate, with two independents siding with the Democrats. If the election were held today, the GOP would win 213 House seats and the Democrats would win 179, while 43 seats are still considered tossups, according to RealClearPolitics’ aggregation of seven major polls. At least 218 seats are needed to win a majority, and analysts say that many of the tossups are leaning Republican – all but assuring their victory. The same polling currently has the GOP picking up seven Senate seats, or three shy of the 51 they would need to wrest control.

If these projections play out, Boehner would replace Democrat Nancy Pelosi as House speaker and take the lead in promoting the  Republicans' "Pledge to America" platform, which is largely premised on dismantling Obama’s legislative achievements, extending Bush-era tax cuts to everyone, including the high-income earners, and blocking Democratic initiatives on climate control and immigration reform. “What happens after the November elections will depend on the president,” Boehner told The Fiscal Times Tuesday. “Will he listen to the American people and work with us to get serious about cutting spending and helping create jobs?”

Martin Frost agrees it’s possible that just as former President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans worked out important compromises on welfare reform and the minimum wage in 1996, Obama and the House and Senate Republicans could decide it’s in their best interest to cut political deals over the next two years.