If it seems like the Senate is getting a lot done lately, that’s because it is. Suddenly, everyone is willing to compromise or move a bill along, now that elections are over. Come January 4th, gridlock will return to pre-November levels, or possibly worse. But for now, prominent negotiators like McConnell and the moderates want one last chance at making compromises on their terms.
Looking back over the past few decades, it’s clear that major legislation can still make its way through a divided government, even a divided Congress. It just won’t be the same kind of legislation because there will be a whole new set of negotiators writing it.
Over the last two years, most negotiations have been between the center and various strains of the left. A Senate or House committee wrote their version of an Obama initiative, which was likely to be heavily influenced by party leadership, then put it up for debate. Liberal Dems got their say in at this stage of the game. Unfortunately, their favorite provisions rarely made it through negotiations, which took place in the Senate.
At this point, it was up to Obama and Reid to convince conservative Democrats (such as Nelson, Lincoln, Specter, and Lieberman) and liberal Republicans from the Northeast (Snow, Collins and Brown) to come on board. After the necessary concessions were made to get at least 60 votes in the Senate, it was on the House where Pelosi attempted to slip a few progressive changes back into the bill.
The far right had no say in any of this (except on Fox News) and Obama was sure to sign anything that landed on his desk.
Fast forward to 2011, and almost all of the major players have changed. Democrats now have to appeal to the seventh most sympathetic Republican in the Senate, not the second or third. Add in Lieberman and Manchin, and thats nine votes that the Dems will have to fight for. Murkowski’s new status as an independent puts her on a list of four Republicans that can plausibly be tempted to cross party lines, but thats still three short.
I don’t think they’ll have a problem picking up three more votes, especially considering that the bill will have to be accepted in the House, where Republicans have a 49 seat lead and John Boehner’s party is in charge of the agenda.
Basically, if any law is to go through in the next Congress, both Boehner and Reid would have to agree to bring it to a vote. The only way thats going to happen is if the pair cut a deal. And with Obama holding veto power, he’ll be involved in any negotiations as well.
While Democrats may have two of the three governing bodies, the GOP still has one major advantage. If things go wrong, or if nothing gets done, Obama and the Democrats will suffer the most in 2012. People blame the president, not Congress, for the state of the economy.
In other words, Republicans can still play politics, and they have an even stronger hand than before. But with great power comes great responsibility. They might have to spend less time complaining and put more energy into getting positive results this time around. Democrats still are in a position where governing comes first. At least until the election, that is.
As a result, there will be a shift from left-of-center to right-of-center policy making, and the powerful moderate influence in the Senate will come to an end. The bills that come out of Congress will still be close to the ideological middle, but they’ll be a result of compromise between the left and right, not moderates standing their ground.
Obama and the Republican leadership, primarily in the House, are the new negotiators. With the House and the Executive on either side of it, the Senate will have lost some of its relevance. At least we won’t have to hear about filibusters as much.