Could a Centrist GOP Break the Government Stalemate?
Policy + Politics

Could a Centrist GOP Break the Government Stalemate?

Even before they have sealed their likely victory over the Democrats in next Tuesday’s mid-term election, GOP leaders in the Senate and House have begun to shape a legislative agenda that is less reflective of a sweeping mandate than a permission slip from voters to try to find an alternative to endless partisan gridlock.

If the polls and political forecasts prove true, then the GOP will be back in control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in nearly a decade. They will be creating a fresh political dynamic, pitting a Republican legislative body against a Democratic president with a veto pen.

Related:   Three Reasons Why a GOP ‘Wave’ Is Still Possible

Republicans seemingly have succeeded in turning the mid-term election campaign into a referendum on the highly unpopular President Obama. But short of a stunning surprise at the polls next week, Republicans at best can hope for a narrow majority to work with in the Senate next year.

With many of the Senate races in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, New Hampshire, Kansas and elsewhere likely to be decided by a few percentage points, McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) will have trouble claiming a popular mandate for change.

Nor will the election results automatically translate into positive action in a body that has rightly been dubbed the “Do Nothing Congress” for the past two years.

Without an impressive list of legislative accomplishments to point to in 2016, Republicans may have another tough time making the case that they should be back in control of the White House after two previous losses.

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Like it or not, Republicans will need Obama to sign off on portions of their legislative agenda; but by the same token, the president will need Republican votes to push some semblance of a legislative package through Congress in the remaining two years of his second term.

Moreover, with the rising threat of ISIS jihadists targeting the U.S. and other western countries, it is imperative that the White House and Congress work more closely on strategy and funding to battle the scourge. 

Source—The New Republic

“If Obama just wants to fight – whether it’s over immigration or whatever you want to pick – then we’ll get nothing done,” Steve Bell, a top officials with the Bipartisan Policy Center, said on Monday. “A lot of it depends on whether the president is willing to deal. He has the opportunity to take advantage of what might be a slightly more centrist Senate than you might think.”

The complexity of getting anything done in a divided government may help to explain why Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) have been relatively circumspect in their early previews of what to expect if the Republicans are fully back in charge of Congress beginning in January.

Related: ‘Do Nothing Congress’ Wants In on Obama’s War on ISIS

Far from the bold, Tea-Party tinged rhetoric that preceded the Republican takeover of the House in 2010 – when GOP leaders vowed to cut at least one government program a week, dismantle chunks of the Affordable Care Act and regularly summon Obama administration officials to justify their policies – Republicans now are sounding more realistic ambitions.

Although he has occasionally lapsed into bombastic threats along the campaign trail to stop the   Obama administration’s policies in their tracks, McConnell has told reporters recently that he is preparing an agenda that includes approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline and repealing an unpopular medical device tax approved as part of Obamacare.

He also raised the possibility of working out a compromise with Obama on things the president would like to accomplish, such as overhauling the corporate tax laws and reviving a stalled Asian trade agreement.

“I’m not opposed to doing business with the president,” McConnell told USA Today during a recent campaign bus tour through an economically depressed area of Kentucky. "If he will — if confronted by a totally Republican Congress — work with us to look for the areas where we might find some agreement, it could be a couple of years where we could get some significant things done."

Related: McConnell Vows Tough Action Next Year – Even If it Means Another Shutdown     

McCarthy, the new House Majority Leader, meanwhile has cautioned Republicans that unless their party assembles an exemplary record and avoids more confrontations with the White House and government crises, that their prospects in 2016 will be bleak.

“I do know this,” McCarthy recently told GOP donors on Long Island, Politico reported.  “If we don’t capture the House stronger, and the Senate, and prove we could govern, there won’t be a Republican president in 2016.”

McCarthy says that if he has his way, House and Senate Republicans will kick off the year at a joint retreat to get on the same, “muscular and unified” agenda, Politico said. Indeed, he and Sen.  John Thune (R-SD), a rising star in the Senate, have been holding private dinners with lawmakers from both chambers to begin building better relationships.

Related: With McCarthy’s Rise, Tech Sector Gets a Boost

“They’re not going to close down the government again,” said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist. “I think they’ve learned their lesson. But Senator McConnell is on record as saying his objective is to block the objectives of the Obama administration. He knows full well that he can’t repeal Obamacare,” Baker said in an interview. “But other than that,” there will be little room for compromise.

On one of the most important issues – immigration -- an agreement on a comprehensive reform plan still appears to be “Mission Impossible.”  If Obama makes good on his pledge to use executive actions to protect millions of illegal immigrants from deportation, he will anger Republicans and even some Democrats.

Related: Obama’s Dream Act Dooms Immigration Reform

Obama can expect some of the biggest pushback from Republicans on his nominations to the federal bench and the executive branch. Last November, Senate Democrats took the dramatic step of eliminating filibusters for most presidential nominations – the so-called “nuclear option” triggered by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) in retaliation for the Republicans frequently stalling or blocking the president’s choices.

Bell, the BPC official and a former Republican Senate policy adviser , said that a new Republican majority will face many obstacles in working its will – with the threat of a veto hanging over them, the resumption of across the board spending cuts under the sequester, and mounting defense costs to fight ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria.

“I think one of the real big questions is whether they are going to ameliorate or in some way amend the statutory caps because of what they’re doing to defense programs,” he said. 

McConnell, 72, the wily five-term veteran senator will finally get his chance to take the reins of the Senate and leave his own  mark on that institution – provided, of course, he wins reelection in a tight contest and his party picks up at least six seats.

Related: Dems Decide Kentucky Race May Be Salvageable

Despite his often acrimonious dealings with Obama and Reid, McConnell has repeatedly stepped in and negotiated last minute deals to avert or shorten a government crisis – as he did in preventing a default on U.S. debt in 2011, ending a 16-day government shutdown last year.

But Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, contends that McConnell  intervened more in the service of his party (and to minimize criticism of his party) than to get Congress and the president out of a difficult spot.

“Mitch is pragmatic – a  ruthless pragmatic guy – and he will cut a deal with anybody if it serves what he believes is his own political interest,” Ornstein said in an interview. “There may be some issues where his political interest gets in synch with the President and the Democrats. But I suspect that those will be relatively few and far between.”

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