There is plenty that is new in the Senate. A dozen fresh faces. Twenty female senators. And in Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, America’s first openly gay senator. But the urgent question, after the Republicans’ mortifying electoral beat-down on Tuesday, is whether the party has a new strategy, especially on addressing that noxious mix of tax hikes and spending cuts looming known as the fiscal cliff.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in a taunt heard round the world back in 2010, trumpeted that his team’s top objective was defeating President Obama. It was a threat unwise and, it turns out, unmet. In part because of Republican obstructionism, the electorate’s opinion of Congress plummeted to record lows; and Senate Democrats—in what was widely expected to be a lousy year for the Left—instead scored a two-seat gain. The Dems now hold a 53-45 advantage, with two independents (Bernie Sanders of Vermont and freshman Angus King of Maine) who share their philosophy.
What does this convey for Americans and their families? Access to health care, for one thing. Lost with the dream of a President Romney and a resurgent Republican Senate is the GOP’s opportunity to employ the budget-reconciliation process to chop and slash and yank “Obamacare” out by its roots.
Resistance to the Affordable Care Act won’t end. Regulations are still to be written and reviewed. The states must set up insurance exchanges or accept those created by Uncle Sam. And the Supreme Court decision that upheld the law’s individual mandate also wreaked havoc on its requirements for expanded Medicaid coverage. At the White House Correspondents’ Dinner last spring, Obama joked (plaintively and accurately) that after spending his first term passing health care reform, he would dedicate a second one—to passing health care reform.
But with sustaining verdicts from the Supreme Court and from the voters on Tuesday, the Affordable Care Act has survived its immediate existential threats. “The law gets an opportunity to work,” said Henry Olsen, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, as the scope of Democratic success became clear on Tuesday night. “And if it works, it sinks roots.”
Less clear is the effect of Tuesday’s vote on the Senate’s trudge toward the fiscal cliff. Some of the Democratic newcomers may complicate things by tugging the chamber to the left, what with Baldwin arriving from leafy Madison and that populist Joan of Arc, Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, having defeated Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts to reclaim Edward Kennedy’s venerated seat for her party.
In Indiana, Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly beat tea party favorite Richard Mourdock in the contest to succeed departing GOP Sen. Richard Lugar. Rep. Chris Murphy whipped World Wrestling Entertainment honcho Linda McMahon in Connecticut for the seat of retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman. Former North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp won in an upset, keeping an open seat in the Democratic column. So did Rep. Mazie Hirono in Hawaii, former Gov. Tim Kaine in Virginia, and Rep. Martin Heinrich in New Mexico. And the independent King will offer Democrats a more reliable vote than did the retiring Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine.
But there were steps to the right as well. Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona saved retiring Sen. Jon Kyl’s seat for the GOP. Republican Debra Fischer takes over from Democratic centrist Ben Nelson of Nebraska. And the victory in Texas by Ted Cruz, a champion of movement conservatives, suggested that both parties had sidled toward the wings and thus padded the partisan polarity.
Yet Cruz’s biography illustrates the limits of predicting behavior in the new Congress. Yes, he beat a GOP insider in the primary and comes to Washington as a tea party hero. But his résumé—Princeton; magna cum laude at Harvard Law School; editor of the Harvard Law Review; clerk to the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist; director of the Office of Policy Planning at the Federal Trade Commission; associate deputy attorney general and policy adviser under President George W. Bush; Texas solicitor general and law professor—reeks of intellectual firepower and establishment varnish. His father fought with Fidel Castro in Cuba. No pitchfork-toting birther he.
Cruz, Fischer, and Flake will face powerful crosscurrents when they arrive—more so than their Democratic counterparts. A tide of furious conservative activists is demanding fealty in the war against big government and threatening to enforce right-wing orthodoxy by taking down mavericks in Republican primaries.
The political action arm of the Heritage Foundation showed no immediate interest in promoting cooperation. “We are in a war … to save this nation,” it declared, vowing to combat Obama in a new fundraising video, replete with scenes of chaos and a horror-movie sound track. And a group of conservative spokesmen, from Reagan-era veterans to Tea Party Patriots, insisted that Republicans dust off the tumbrels and the guillotines. “Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, [National Republican] Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, and other Republican leaders behind the epic election failure of 2012 should be replaced,” said conservative figurehead Richard Viguerie. “In any logical universe, establishment Republican consultants such as Karl Rove, Ed Gillespie, Romney campaign senior adviser Stuart Stevens, and pollster Neil Newhouse would never be hired to run or consult on a national campaign again, and no one would give a dime to their ineffective super PACs.”
This article appears in the November 10, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.