Is Cooperation and Legislative Productivity Possible in Washington?

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Source: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

A few races have yet to be decided, but the Republican tide is more than confirmed. Victories in Colorado, Iowa, Montana, South Dakota, Arkansas, West Virginia, and North Carolina took the seven needed seats out of Democrat hands to give the party control of the Senate. And zero states were lost, despite close races in Kansas and Georgia. That gives the Democrats only 45 likely seats to the Republicans’ 53 seats, with Louisiana’s results still to come. And after all the ballots are counted, the GOP’s share of the House of Representatives will be even larger. CNN has projected the party will hold 246 seats, its largest majority since World War II. Come 2015, Congress will no longer be divided between Republicans and Democrats; whether GOP lawmakers and the White House will work together was the theme of Wednesday’s post-election press conferences of both President Obama and Kentucky’s Republican Senator Mitch McConnell — current Minority Leader and Majority Leader-in-waiting.

The fact that midterm election voters tend to be older and whiter than in presidential elections “amounts to a built-in midterm turnout advantage for Republicans,” as Cook Political Report has explained. Yet, the more important narrative of the 2014 congressional midterm elections was not this massive turn to the right, but the fact that American voters are disgusted with gridlock. Sure, a number of incumbent senators successfully defended their seats, specifically McConnell — whose deep ties to the billionaire Koch and limited political accomplishments put his re-election bid at risk. His 35-year-old Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes, posed a stark contrast to the 30-year Senate veteran who has served as the face of Republican obstruction in Congress. However, this election was not enough to change the narrative of anti-incumbent sentiment that is rampant among voters.

Both McConnell and Obama promised to cooperate in the remaining weeks of this legislative term, noting in very specific language that voters had spoken their disapproval of “governing by crisis” and of the administration at the ballot box Tuesday night. But each set out their limits; each pointed to the fact the other must move closer to the center. And setting aside clever witticisms (like Obama promising to drink Kentucky Bourbon with McConnell) and abstract promises, the two leaders left a lot of room for a future stalemate.

Mitch McConnell’s press conference:

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Win McNamee/Getty Images

It was the clear intention of McConnell to prove to listeners that under his leadership the Senate would not be governing by crisis, lawmakers will not choose partisan fights over compromise, and they will pass actual legislation. “There will be no government shutdowns, and no defaults on the national debt,” he pledged at the Wednesday afternoon press conference at the University of Louisville. ”When the American people chose divided government, I don’t think it means they don’t want us to do anything,” he added, noting that both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton worked with the Congress though it was not the Congress they wanted. After all, the federal government has been divided more often than not since the Second World War, and each time, legislative action did not grind to a halt. For example, during six years of the Clinton administration, Democrats did not control the House or Senate, but the life of social security was extended and the budget balanced.

As for the dysfunction of the past, the senator placed the blame squarely on his colleagues, claiming Democrats prevented any legislation not in line with the president’s agenda from reaching his desk.

There were two salient points in McConnell’s strategy for returning the federal government to business as usual. First, he believes legislative action can be made if the Republican leadership and the president focus on finding “areas of agreements.” Already, McConnell and Obama have met, and the soon-to-be majority leader stated that the president indicated his willingness to pursue international trade agreements and tax reform — issues important to the GOP. McConnell also argued that for legislation to move forward, the Senate must be fixed — which means working more (even burning the midnight oil and voting on Fridays). Committees must be more active, and amendments must be allowed on both sides.

But he did acknowledge that the Senate will not hesitate to send legislation the president is sure to veto, and “the veto pen is a pretty powerful tool,” McConnell said. On the list of key Republican proposals sure to not receive the president’s signature are the Keystone pipeline, a project with “stunning” employment figures, and some kind of change to the Affordable Care Act. McConnell called Obamacare a “huge legislative mistake,” promising to keep fighting its implementation, repealing it, or knocking out the most unpopular provisions. As for immigration reform, McConnell likened Obama’s plan to grant amnesty through executive action to “waving a red flag in front of a bull.” And the Dodd Frank Wall Street reforms he called “Obamacare for banks.” What bears remembering is that despite McConnell’s promises, there’s likely to be tensions in the party; many new GOP senators were elected on opposing amnesty and repealing Obamacare. And promises to the electorate cannot be broken or the party’s chances at the presidency in 2016 may be hurt.

“We’re going to function,” he concluded. And he ended his statement by making the prediction that he would be majority leader by next week.

President Barack Obama’s press conference

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Source: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Image

“I don’t want to try to read the tea leaves on election results,” Obama said repeatedly when asked to discuss the message voters were trying to send the administration with sweeping Republican victories. One reporter went so far as to claim “his party rejected” him in key battleground states, but Obama maintained that disapproval was bipartisan and directed at the entire government, not just his administration. The president did acknowledge that the voters (and even those who did not cast ballots) wanted more from their leaders. “What stands out to me, though, is that the American people sent a message, one that they’ve sent for several elections now. They expect the people they elect to work as hard as they do,” he said. “They expect us to focus on their ambitions and not ours. They want us to get the job done.”

“What I’d like to do is hear from the Republicans to find out what they’d like to see happen,” Obama added, as if Republican demands from immigration to health care have not been clear. And while he talked of areas of agreement as McConnell did, compromise did not seem likely. “If there are ideas that the Republicans have that I have confidence will make things better for ordinary Americans, the fact that the Republicans [are] suggesting it, as opposed to a Democrat — that’ll be irrelevant to me. I want to just see what works.”

Obama did frame the passage of a minimum wage initiative passed in five states on Tuesday, a policy opposed by most GOP lawmakers, as a victory. “I think it would be hard to say that people don’t support it,” he said. But despite the message sent by voters, he remains committed to pushing through immigration reform through executive action.

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