With former House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-TX) and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) gone, President Bush might have to adopt a new attitude toward Congress.
Whatever happens on this Election Day, Washington will change.
Scenario One: The Democrats take control of both the House and Senate. President Bush will either have to adopt a new attitude toward Democrats — as indeed President Ronald Reagan did after he lost the Senate in 1986 — or he will spend his last two years as president in a fighting retreat.
Scenario Two: The Democrats capture the House but remain the minority in the Senate. A congressional leadership composed one half of Democrats and one half of Republicans will be vastly different from the Washington of the past four years and will necessitate almost as radical a shift in White House strategy as Scenario One.
Scenario Three: The GOP holds both chambers of Congress by the narrowest of margins. If this is the case, we can still expect to see the Republicans change leaders in both chambers and change their way of doing business, as well. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is retiring, and few expect Speaker Dennis Hastert to return as head of the House GOP in January — even if his party still has the votes to elect a Speaker.
In the late days of this campaign, attention has focused on control of the Senate. A few close races hold the key to the majority, and the odds seem to change daily. This provides suspense and news. But the main business of this election is still control of the House.
In the Senate, majority control means comparatively little unless the majority can muster 60 votes on important issues. So whichever party is nominally in control of a 50-50 split (or its near equivalent) will be rather hamstrung and dependent on diplomacy.
In the House, however, the party with even the barest majority can set all the rules and call the tune every day. One party decides the agenda and that's it. Simple majority votes suffice for most of the important business before the body.
The House is also more important because control of the House was so critical to the modus operandi of the Bush administration from its first day in office. Under Hastert, the House Republican leadership could be counted on to adopt the White House position on major issues — Iraq, taxes, prescription drugs, energy supplies, interrogating terror suspects.
So long as former Majority Leader Tom DeLay was still at work, the House Republicans were usually united and reliable on any vote of interest to the president. ("When he's around, my bills get passed," the president once said.) That was true even when substantial numbers of House Republicans thought the president was spending too much money, or expanding the federal government too much.
When the House DID rebel, it was because it wanted the president to be MORE conservative. The biggest such pushback came in 2005, when the House ignored the president's preferences in passing its own (enforcement-only) bill to curb illegal immigration. In 2006, the House did it again by refusing to consider the Senate's immigration plan (which more closely resembled the one from the White House).
So in the standard procedure the White House perfected, Step One was passage in the House. Step Two was to use the House-passed bill to pressure the Senate. This worked fairly well in the 107th Congress (2001-02), when the Senate was either 50-50 or Democratic by a single vote. It enabled the president to pass much of his education and tax program and to win a vote in the fall of 2002 that authorized his invasion of Iraq. It worked even better after Republicans took the majority back in November 2002 and expanded it to 55 seats in November 2004.
Step Three in this sequence would come when the House diluted Democratic input in conference negotiations with the Senate (a routine but important process that resolves differences between the two chambers' bills). The Senate Republican conferees benefited from this arrangement, because they could come back to the full Senate with a bill far different than passed the Senate floor — and usually get away with it.
That will be far harder to do with the Senate split down the middle. And that's why the standard procedure of the Bush years should be a thing of the past in the 110th Congress, whichever of the three Election Day scenarios eventuates this week.
Ron Elving co-hosts It's All Politics, a weekly podcast, with NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin.