What would President Mitt Romney do as President if Harry Reid is still Majority Leader in January 2013? What can he hope to get done if the Democrats still run the Upper Chamber when Romney is sworn in as the 45th President? Will he be able to get any major tax, budget or health care reform accomplished or will his legislative agenda be stillborn in a heavily partisan atmosphere with little, if any, honeymoon phase for the new President?
Most reasonable people believe that whatever happens in the Presidential election and the various Senate contests around the country the House of Representatives will stay Republican in the next Congress and John Boehner will be able to shepherd (at least for a few months until the 2014 midterm elections begin to heat up) a budget, some kind of Obamacare repeal and tax reform through the Lower Chamber. But what if the Democrats are still in charge of the Senate? As close as this election season is not only at the national level but with so many Senate contests coming right down to the wire there are four scenarios that could happen in January 2013. A reelected Obama could still have a Democratic Senate or he may have to deal with a Republican one. President Romney could face a Harry Reid as Majority Leader, or, if he is a little lucky, may get to deal with Mitch McConnell if the GOP wins the Upper Chamber. Republican candidates are trailing in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Missouri, Ohio and Florida and they need to gain three seats just to have a 50/50 split with Vice President Paul Ryan breaking the tie. But what happens if the GOP loses most of those races and ends up with 48 or 49 seats? It is certainly possible. George Bush came into office in January 2001 with the Republicans just having lost five seats in the Senate and ended up losing shared control of the chamber after Jim Jeffords of Vermont decided to caucus with the Democrats in June. Bush was able to pass education and some tax reform but (with the notable exception of 9/11 related legislation) was obstructed by Tom Daschle and his allies in the Democratic caucus. Will this happen again? It could, if Mitt wins and Harry ends up running the Senate.
The Big Problem-The Honorable Harry Reid
Based on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s statements about Mitt Romney (saying he’s a potential felon, tax cheat, bad Mormon, etc.) it is very hard to imagine the senior Senator from Nevada granting the new President much of a political honeymoon. After the last four (really most of the last twelve years) of extreme political polarization and all the water Harry Reid had to carry for President Obama he’s not about to, if still Majority Leader, allow legislation to come forward to roll back laws that he worked so hard (and Democrats paid such a steep political price) to pass. With this probably being his last term (it seems fairly clear he won’t run again in 2016) he wouldn’t pay any real political price opposing a Republican president without a significant electoral mandate. Able to stop President Romney at every turn, the new Administration would have a Sisyphean task to pass legislation reforming health care, the tax code or the appointment of federal judges to the bench.
The Tea Party’s first priority in a Republican administration would be the repeal of the most controversial piece of domestic legislation in a generation. If the GOP gets even a bare majority (perhaps 51 seats) they could probably ram through some kind of package that would repeal most, if not all of Obamacare. Working with the House of Representatives the Senate GOP could probably reverse the mechanism (Reconciliation) the Democrats used in 2009. It would be interesting to see if Senate Republicans would have the moxie to actually follow through if they had a majority. If Harry Reid is still in charge, however, Obamacare would probably remain in place as most of the Democratic caucus (with the notable exception of a few vulnerable members up in 2014) would have no reason to see it changed and could use it as a cudgel to beat up the new Administration. Perhaps the House and Senate could come up with a small compromise (eliminating the hated Independent Payment Advisory Board comes to mind) but, in the end, it would probably depend on what Senator Reid decides will come up on the calendar. And, after the heartache the Democrats went through to get it passed in the first place it is hard to see how President Romney would be able to patch together a coalition to make changes acceptable enough to pass the Senate. At the same time, Harry Reid will be able to sit back and criticize the process and make political capital against any changes that he could spin into sound bites against Republicans bent on denying Americans health care. Democrats around the country could sit back and laugh if Republicans were not able to stop their great legislative achievement and then the resulting political blame the GOP would get as the law really begins its implementation in 2013-14.
Tax and Budget Reform
What will happen when we reach the “fiscal cliff” on January 1, 2013? If there is no significant patch by the rump Congress that will meet for a few weeks after November 6 there is simply no telling how employers, individual taxpayers and investors will react as they prepare for a such a wide range of tax increases. Combined with an eventual European reckoning that probably won’t have a good ending (Spain and Greece seem to already be in a death spiral) there is a very real chance that the economy will be in recession as President Romney starts his Presidency. The possibility of rising unemployment as businesses, faced with large tax increases and health care changes from Obamacare, simply shuttering their door present a huge political danger for a new President as nervous Americans will demand quick action to forestall a significant economic downturn. Moreover, if the economy does degenerate further, the federal deficit will continue to grow as more Americans seek relief and less tax revenue finds its way into the federal treasury. In this scenario Harry Reid is in a particularly strong position as Mitt Romney would have to come to him, hat in hand, to wring out any kind of tax and budget arrangement that would stimulate the economy. If that happens, Reid will make huge demands and will be extremely difficult for President Romney to fashion any kind of compromise that will be acceptable to the Majority Leader and the House GOP leadership. Facing the prospect of getting pummeled in the 2014 midterms in an economy in recession, the GOP will be very weak against an invigorated Harry Reid who can make demand after demand and criticize the President for any action (or inaction) that he may make to save the struggling economy. He was all over President Bush in 2007 and 2008 for a lack of leadership and his party went from 45 senators in 2005 to 60 in 2009. That will always be in the back of his mind and he knows he’ll probably be the great beneficiary of any of the country’s economic set backs as voters will blame the President, not Congress for their woes.
This issue has not generated much ink in the last few months but it certainly will become hot when President Romney begins to fill positions on the Federal Appeals courts around the country, and, perhaps, to the Supreme Court. The political Left will simply not allow its Democratic supporters in the Senate to give a Republican president much leeway in who he appoints to the Federal bench and Harry Reid will slow walk any nominations to the floor for a vote. This will be especially true if a really unreconstructed liberal like Ruth Bader Ginsburg ends up retiring and President Romney would be under a lot of pressure from the political Right to appoint a person who will tip the balance of a very divided Supreme Court to the conservatives. Very simply, this could end up being an issue that could destroy the President’s credibility with the Right (and they may well abandon him) if he ends up appointing a David Souter-like moderate to the Court. The problem, of course, is that this is probably the only type of person who could eventually make it through a Judiciary Committee packed with extreme liberals and a Majority Leader hell bent on continually embarrassing a President that he obviously doesn’t like personally and politically. If anyone needs any indication of what this process will be like they simply have to go back to the maltreatment of Miguel Estrada, a first generation American and a star legal mind who had worked in the Clinton Administration and was appointed by President Bush in 2001 to the D.C. Court of Appeals. With Tom Daschle in charge, Estrada, as capable and competent as any before or after never even got a vote on the floor and, after a waiting more than a year, simply withdrew his name from consideration. There is simply no reason to believe that a much more liberal Democratic caucus will stomach conservative appointees and, as a result, seats on the various courts around the country will remain unfilled or will be stuffed full of compromise candidates that liberals can live with and conservatives will weep, gnash their teeth over and curse the President that they worked so hard to elect.
Certainly all this can be avoided if Mitt Romney’s victory (if there is one) is strong enough to carry the Senate along with him. Ronald Reagan was able to take twelve new GOP senators with him to DC in 1981 after delivering a ten point knockout to the hapless Jimmy Carter. Unfortunately, 2012 is not 1980 and Barack Obama is not Jimmy Carter and will probably, even if he loses, keep this election very close. If Mitt does win and the GOP does control the Senate, he’d have at least a few months to work through Congress legislation that he deems important. If Romney wins and the Senate GOP remains in the minority, the new President would need a lot of luck to get anything through. Perhaps the economy will recover or the new President rises to a national challenge as yet unseen (the first Gulf War or 9/11 come to mind) and can parlay that kind of leadership into political capital he may get legislation that he wants passed. Even in that scenario, however, that kind of political honeymoon doesn’t last long and a political animal like Harry Reid will demand a high price.
If there’s an irony to this it is that there are at least fourteen Democrats in the Senate who are cheering for a Romney victory and I’ll tell you who they are: Mark Begich, Mark Pryor, Mark Udall, Tom Harkin, Mary Landrieu, Carl Levin, Al Franken, Max Baucus, Jeanne Shaheen, Tom Udall, Kay Hagan, Jeff Merkley, Tim Johnson, and Mark Warner. They are all up for reelection in 2014 and most of the names mentioned above would be in terrible political jeopardy if President Obama is reelected. Especially for those elected for the first time in the Democratic year of 2008, these folks will be particularly vulnerable in the sixth year of Obama’s presidency and would (probably) suffer accordingly. Faced with defeat many would probably consider retirement (especially old bulls Levin, Harkin, Johnson and Baucus) rather than face a humiliating defeat. But we’ll see; it is a geological ice age until the Presidential election and we simply don’t know what will happen. We simply have to wait and find out what the American voters decide on November 6.