Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell delivered an extraordinary floor speech last week in which he essentially auditioned for the job of Majority Leader – the one currently held by Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada.
For 40 minutes, the Kentucky Republican who is up for reelection this year railed against Reid and the Democratic majority for a take-it-or-leave it brand of governance akin to a “permanent sort of shirts-against-skins contest.”
McConnell outlined three main reforms the Republicans would adopt if they were to win control of the Senate in November: allowing a “more robust” committee process, permitting more amendments on the floor and forcing members to work a longer week in Washington.
“I’m not here to claim that we are without fault,” McConnell declared during the speech. “But I am certain of one thing — I’m absolutely certain of one thing — that the Senate can be better than it is.”
Given the way the political stars are aligning, the veteran Kentucky lawmaker may finally get his wish. The current lineup in the Senate is 53 Democrats, 45 Republicans and two independents who caucus with the Democrats.
Republicans would need a net pickup of six seats to reclaim control of the Senate for the first time since 2007, and many political analysts believe that will be within their reach this fall because of political dynamics and historical trends.
“If there is even a small GOP wave come October, then the party could get to six seats,” said Larry J. Sabato, Director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “By the way, that's the exact average number of seats picked up by the non-White House party since World War II in the sixth year of a two-term administration.”
With at least a half dozen Democratic Senate seats at risk in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina , South Dakota and West Virginia, Obama is wasting little time tailoring his political and policy agenda to improving the Democrats’ odds in the fall election. The president and his political advisers met at the White House Wednesday evening with all 55 Senate Democrats.
The White House strategy, essentially, is to pitch a populist message of income equality while trying to defuse rampant criticism of the Obamacare rollout and raising a lot of campaign funds, according to Politico.
“He’s committed to helping us,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat. “And he has been trying to help us in a whole lot of ways . . . including fundraising and helping our candidates getting involved in every way we ask.”
The political stakes of a partisan sea change in Congress go far beyond the niceties of a return to “regular order,” an increase in the number of allowable amendments or the length of the Senate work week, as McConnell suggested.
Republicans are furious over what they consider Reid’s high-handed tactics to marginalize the minority – most notably his use of the “nuclear option” last November to eviscerate the ability of the minority to wage filibusters against judicial and executive branch nominations. They have vowed to take revenge if they win back control in November.
“This is the most important and most dangerous restructuring of Senate rules since Thomas Jefferson wrote them at the beginning of our country,” declared Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee. “It’s another raw exercise of political power to permit the majority to do whatever it wants whenever it wants to do it.”
A newly constituted Senate majority with McConnell at its head might press for an even greater “nuclear option” of doing away with filibusters on all legislative matters – not just administration nominations. Such a move could clear the way for passage of GOP-inspired tax cuts, entitlement reform and government deregulation with a simple majority instead of the current 60-vote super majority required to end a filibuster and pass a bill.
There would be other important consequences as well to a return to one-party rule in Congress, with Republicans in charge of both the Senate and the House. If the likes of McConnell and Tea Party favorites Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas are suddenly calling the shots in the Senate, the Democrats’ main bulwark against House Republican legislation and assaults will be gone – leaving President Obama and his veto pen as his party’s last line of defense.
That would mean Obama would likely spend his last two years in office trying to fend off Republican-passed legislation to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, strip out sections of the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation, kill off Environmental Protection Agency regulations reducing greenhouse gas emissions, further toughening sanctions against Iran and scores of other measures that strike at the heart of Obama’s legislative accomplishments. Jim Manley, Reid’s former press secretary, said Washington would be treated to “government by veto.”
William A. Galston, a government policy expert with the Brookings Institution and a former domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, added that Republicans might have to consider “at least of modicum of compromise” if they wanted to get anything done.
Mark Begich (D-AK)
|under attack by three potential Republican candidates for his support of the Affordable Care Act and his energy policies|
Mark Pryor (D-AR)
|locked in a tough reelection battle with Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, a Harvard-educated veteran|
Mary Landrieu (D-LA)
|bracing for a tough conservative challenge from one of three Republicans who have criticized her for casting the decisive vote for Obamacare.|
Kay Hagan (D-NC)
|will be challenged by one of five Republicans in the race who are hammering her support of Obamacare|
Jay Rockefeller (D-WV)
|retiring, and Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito is mounting a strong campaign against Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant to claim his vacant seat|
Tim Johnson (D-SD)
|retiring, and former Republican governor Mike Rounds is favored to replace him|
“But based on what I’ve seen so far, especially in the House, I would expect the Republicans to move quickly on a whole host of issues important not only to their base but to the business community as well,” Galston said. “From social issues along with tax cuts, etc., and obviously Obamacare.”
At the same time, Republicans would have a much larger platform from which to promote their economic and social agenda in the run-up to the 2016 presidential campaign. Republicans would dictate the agenda on the floor, just as Reid is doing now. And they would regain control of the committee system – a critical tool in conducting public hearings and investigations and promoting key legislation in all aspects of government and public life.
Yet the Republicans would likely face some difficult challenges if they prevail in the fall Senate elections. Even under the best of outcomes, a new Republican majority in the Senate would be far narrower than the Democrats’ current majority. On many controversial issues, the GOP would need Democratic votes to pass legislation.
Moreover, the new Senate Republican majority would likely be somewhat more moderate than the hard-edged, combative GOP majority in the House – making compromise between the two chambers highly problematic in some cases.
Steve Bell of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a former senior Republican Senate aide, said this week that “The Republicans in the Senate have almost never been tested” because Reid and the Democrats have prevented most of the more extreme House-passed bills from reaching the Senate floor for action.
Bell said he seriously doubts whether Senate Republicans would go along with some of the measures that have won approval in the House – such as massive cuts in food stamp spending and major overhauls of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and other entitlements.
“We will see whether they walk the walk,” Bell said. “I just don’t think they will.”
The crafty, owlish-looking McConnell has battled Reid for years - as much over rules and procedures as over Obamacare and other critical legislative issues. The bickering continued Tuesday, when the two sides argued over whether Reid had given the Republicans a fair shot at amending a bill to restore unemployment benefits for 1.4 million long-term unemployed.
McConnell insisted that Reid had stacked the deck against the GOP by allowing each side only five amendments and requiring a 60-vote majority to pass any one of them – a near impossible threshold for the Republicans to reach.
McConnell told reporters he had hoped the two sides could restore equanimity and return to a more “normal” legislative approach in which both parties had a right to offer important amendments. “This is a procedure that obviously can’t get us to that place,” he said of Reid’s plan. The Majority Leader retorted, “The Republicans’ strategy is to object to everything, no matter what the Democrats try.”
The day ended in stalemate, with the chamber voting twice to block measures to extend unemployment benefits.
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