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Democratic Senate Promises More Gridlock

Senate Democrats will become the first roadblock for the ambitious agenda of the triumphant House GOP.

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks during a press conference.(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

photo of Dan  Friedman
November 3, 2010

The results of the 2010 midterms are likely to turn the slim Democratic majority in U.S. Senate into a braking mechanism for the ambitious agenda of the triumphant House GOP.

The ambitious Obama agenda that has been the cause of so much divisiveness will be replaced by a GOP agenda in the House that will likely be equally divisive and just as heatedly debated, and it will be up to Democrats in the Senate to stop or stymie those GOP proposals.

Despite the loss of several Democratic seats, an early win in West Virginia all but dashed GOP hopes of gaining the 10 seats needed to win control of Senate. Gov. Joe Manchin survived a late surge by Republican John Raese to hold the Democratic seat once held by the late Sen. Robert Byrd, even as Democratic incumbents fell in Wisconsin and Arkansas, and open Democratic seats in Indiana and North Dakota went to the GOP.


The West Virginia loss left Republicans acknowledging that a GOP Senate majority was unlikely.

"We've always known the Senate was gonna be a tough haul," Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele told MSNBC.

But the ability of the House majority to completely control and pass its agenda means that much of what Democrats have accomplished in the last two years will be under threat of repeal or revision, and it will put Senate Democrats in the position of having to fend off the GOP's advances with their majority in the House and their expanded caucus in the Senate. 

“Our caucus will be bigger, rowdier, and more effective,” promised Senate Republican Conference Staff Director Ryan Loskarn, before the results were clear.

The smaller majority means diminished power and less room to maneuver in a political landscape that is completely altered. The Senate's narrower margins are a recipe for pure gridlock.

But there are some senators who say that the closer margins could lead to a new age of cooperation. They argue that Democrats will be forced to look beyond their own much narrower caucus for winning votes if they want to accomplish anything. Without the 58- to 60-seat majority that allowed Democrats to pass a series of historic bills, from the stimulus to health care to financial reform, in the first 18 months of the 111th Congress, Democrats may have no choice but to reach across the aisle. But the harsh, confrontational tone of the last two years establishes a very high bar for compromise and cooperation.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and others have argued that many GOP filibusters in the current Congress have resulted from Democrats’ belief that their numbers meant they could ignore the minority. A closer split, in this view, could force Democrats to make deals.

Most Democrats and many Senate watchers, on the other hand, believe more Republicans will mean more gridlock. How much more may depend on what President Obama’s agenda will be over the next two years.

Gridlock will result if “he wants to energize and galvanize his party… and excite the base,” said one Republican strategist. “More of a game-changer would be if he focuses on the political independents and decides, ‘Maybe I’ll do things on debt relief, trade agreements, and those sorts of things.’"

Also, the  23 Democratic caucus members up for election in 2012 could greatly determine how much Democrats are willing to work with Republicans. That group includes at least six red-state Democrats, including Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Jim Webb, D-Va., who Republicans think could join them to provide a bipartisan majority on some bills.

But the new Republican senators may have something to say about that as well. The first GOP win of the night came in Kentucky, where tea party favorite Rand Paul took the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Jim Bunning, and it was not long before Paul was promising to take the tea party message to Washington.

"Tonight there’s a tea party tidal wave, and we’re sending a message to [Americans]," Paul said in his victory speech. "It’s a message that I will carry with me on day one. It’s a message of fiscal sanity; it is a message of limited government and balanced budgets."

With the death or departure of some legendary figures, the next Senate will be long on new faces but short on legends and stars. The Senate is losing some of its longest-serving members to retirement or defeat. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, and Arlen Specter, D-Pa., lost in tough primaries, while Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Judd Gregg, R-N.H., will exit by retirement. Their replacements may eventually attain similar legislative heft, but that will take a while.

In contrast to the last midterm election, when the Senate was full of presidential prospects - Barack Obama, John McCain, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Joe Biden, Evan Bayh, and Dodd - only John Thune, R-S.D., and Jim DeMint, R-S.C., are now seen as possible presidential hopefuls going into 2012.

The turnover exceeds normal attrition. The number of new senators replacing incumbents next year will likely be 15 to 18 – potentially the biggest freshman class since at least 1980, when 18 new senators took office. The 2006 and 2008 elections, by contrast, brought 10 and nine new senators, respectively.

Many of those new members will have House or statehouse experience. In all, the number of former House members in the body will likely be 48 or 49, a similar level as recent sessions.

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