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House Minority Leader John Boehner (far right), the likely speaker in a GOP-led House, with other Republican House leaders, including (from left) Candice Miller (MI), House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (VA), Peter Roskam (IL), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA) and Kevin McCarthy (CA).
House Minority Leader John Boehner (far right), the likely speaker in a GOP-led House, with other Republican House leaders, including (from left) Candice Miller (MI), House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (VA), Peter Roskam (IL), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA) and Kevin McCarthy (CA). Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Election Day is 11 days away, but already a lot of people in Washington are looking beyond Nov. 2 to next January — when a new Congress comes to town.
No matter which party ends up controlling the House and Senate, in January it will be a whole new world in Washington. There will be more Republicans — and fewer Democrats — and since many of the moderates in both parties are likely to lose on Election Day, the Republican caucus will be more conservative and the Democrats more liberal.
Bill Galston, a former top aide to President Bill Clinton, says that new, superpolarized environment — with neither side having a functional majority in Congress — will present a brand new challenge to President Obama. "The core of the legislative strategy in the White House over the past two years has been to unite the Democratic Party and then try to pick off one or two or three Republicans," Galston says. "We know already, before we see any of the results of the November election, that that game will be up."
After January, says Galston, nothing will pass unless it has a real bipartisan majority. "Therefore, either there will be two years of gridlock, which I think would be a catastrophe for the United States because our competitors are not standing still and neither is the world, or there's going to have to be a different kind of conversation between the two political parties," he says. "Those are the two choices. There is no third choice."
And right now, you'd have to bet on gridlock, if only because of the rhetoric from either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Republican leaders and officials from the Democratic-held White House both say it's up to the other side to start that different kind of conversation.
"I think it depends on the president," says Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. "If the president's going to maintain his ideological stance and try to jam things through to support the left in America, when we're still a center-right country, we're going to say no."
Meanwhile, David Axelrod, the president's top political adviser, sees things differently. "Sen. Cornyn said they would move quickly to repeal the health reform and repeal financial reform. Sen. [Jim] DeMint [of South Carolina], who's going to have his own caucus within the Republican caucus, has said their goal is gridlock," Axelrod says. "We've had people in the Republican leadership on the House side warning their Republican followers to prepare for a government shutdown. That's not an encouraging thing."
Both sides may spend the next two years breathing fire at each other and getting in position for the 2012 elections. But, says Kenneth Duberstein, who was Republican President Reagan's chief of staff during a period of divided government, sharing power doesn't have to mean that nothing gets done.
"It seems to me that with all of the talk of gridlock and polarization that it will be incumbent upon the president and the Republican leaders of Congress to find some areas to cooperate," Duberstein says.
Changes are already in the works. The president told The New York Times that he regrets being painted not as a different kind of Democrat but as a typical tax-and-spend liberal. And White House aides are talking about more business-friendly tax breaks to encourage hiring, scaled-back bills on energy and immigration, and trying to find common ground on long-stalled trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. They point to education reform as another area where there should be bipartisan consensus.
"Perhaps the biggest area of opportunity is the deficit commission, which is coming out in early December, which will look at our midterm and long-term deficits and how to address them," Duberstein says. "That's what the American people I think are looking for and it may fit in very well with President Obama's needs and the needs of the Republicans, ascendant as they are, to demonstrate it's not the party of stop but the party of let's work together on a few items that are important."
Looking For Common Ground
With power comes accountability. Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) — the man who would most likely be speaker in a Republican House of Representatives — seems to understand that Republicans need to avoid repeating the mistakes they made in 1994 when they lost a standoff with President Clinton over the government shutdown.
"I think the American people want us to find a way to work together to address the concerns that face the American people every day. We're going to drive for a smaller, less costly and more accountable government here in Washington, D.C.," Boehner says. "And to the extent that we can find common ground in that direction, I would welcome it."
Democrat Clinton also faced a Republican Congress after his first two years in office. John Podesta, his former chief of staff, remembers that Clinton reached out to the Republicans to pass welfare reform and eventually a balanced budget. But he didn't compromise on Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment. Podesta recommends a similar two-track approach for Obama.
"There will be a set of issues where he'll have to draw a line in the sand and say, 'You can't come across this line, and I'm going to stop you from doing it,' " Podesta says. "His whole experience in his life has been trying to bring people together, and hopefully he'll be able to do that. But he'll also have to be prepared, I think, to stop things that he thinks will harm the country."
Those line-in-the-sand issues will include any GOP effort to repeal the president's health care or financial regulatory overhauls.
But a larger Republican presence in Congress carries risks as well, says former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), who clashed and compromised with Clinton after the Republican takeover in 1994.
"The Republicans are going to have a fascinating challenge. John Boehner will probably have at least 80 and maybe 100 freshmen, counting the ones who will replace Republican retirees. They're all going to be more anti-Washington. They're all going to be more anti-spending. They're all going to think they were elected from back home to lecture the Republican leadership on its failings," Gingrich says.
For instance, if Republicans do control the House next year, will they be able to round up the votes to raise the debt limit in order to avoid a government default and shutdown? That's hard to imagine, since so many of their Tea Party-backed candidates campaigned against doing that. Gingrich says that's just one of the challenges Republicans will face.
"They have two oddly opposite risks. They have a risk that they will be so chaotic and so unable to govern that they discredit the brand before the presidential election. And they have the risk that they will sell out in such a way that they will infuriate the base and end up with a genuine third-party Tea movement in 2012," Gingrich says. "And so they've got to somehow balance those two."
Gingrich says the Republicans will have to try to repeal health care, and that the party's base will go crazy if they don't.
But it's still possible that the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue will find a way to work together, says Galston, if the president is able to set the stage for a new dynamic.
But he says it won't happen right away.
"Not in January or February or even June — but by October or November and December, I think, it will begin to sink in that the president is being reasonable, conciliatory and forward-looking and the Republican Party has not reciprocated. And at that point they will have no choice," Galston says.
So the safest prediction may be that the next two years will be unpredictable.