In the eight Republican presidential debates held so far, more than 140,000 words have been spoken (142,130 to be exact). But the most telling word, the one that will have more impact than any other on life in Washington after the votes have been counted, surfaced for just a few fleeting seconds.
Obviously, that word isn’t “jobs” or “economy,” “taxes” or “regulations.”
The word is “reconciliation.”
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania brought it up first in the seventh debate—the debate that attracted the smallest TV audience and was viewed mostly by political junkies on the Internet. Santorum raised reconciliation in the context of how he would, as president, repeal President Obama’s health care reform law. “By doing it through a reconciliation process, and since I have the experience and know-how to do that, we’ll take care of and get rid of it,” Santorum said at the debate sponsored by Bloomberg and The Washington Post on Oct. 11. Santorum said he would use the somewhat arcane Senate procedure to undo the sweeping health care law with a 51-vote majority, instead of the 60-vote threshold that is required to pass almost any other piece of legislation in the Senate.
Mitt Romney quickly followed up by saying he knew that reconciliation was the only way to slay what all Republicans seeking the nomination believe is the biggest legislative monster of the Obama presidency. Romney somewhat fancifully vowed to use reconciliation in the first week of his presidency to eradicate the health care law. “I will do that on Day Two with a reconciliation bill, because, as you know, it was passed by reconciliation, 51 votes. We can get rid of it with 51 votes.”
When it comes to trying to imagine the future of governing in Washington in January 2013, it’s almost impossible to do so without examining the probability and implications of a reconciliation process.
Because current polling data at the national and state levels and deep-seated anxiety about the economy and the nation’s overall direction indicate an era of volatility and, possibly, continued Republican success in Congress. Most scenarios envision a Republican House majority. They also foresee a GOP Senate majority. Nothing is guaranteed in politics, of course, and Democrats are in no mood to yield any ground. It is possible that Democrats could retain Senate control and win back the House. But it would require a reversal of fortunes without modern precedent.
In the Senate, Democrats have to defend 23 seats (two of which are held by independents who caucus with Democrats). Republicans must defend only 10 seats. Most outside analysts see Republicans gaining at least a narrow Senate majority. Some scenarios envision a GOP majority at least as large as the Democrats’ current 53-47 advantage. As for the House, robust summer fundraising and some recent gains in the generic question of which party voters want to run Congress have Democrats encouraged. But 14 House Democratic retirements (twice the current number of House GOP retirements), the comparative lack of high-probability takeaway targets, and the instability of the redistricting process have led most analysts to conclude that Democrats have only the slimmest chance of netting the 25 seats necessary to retake the House. “It’s like drawing an inside straight,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist and former chief of staff to then-House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo.
If Democrats win both chambers, their goal would be to solidify the gains that Obama made in his first two years in the White House by cementing the regulatory and bureaucratic framework of the health care law and Wall Street reform. It would also, in all likelihood, include dismantling the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy within the context of tax reform.
But what happens if voters return Obama to the White House and give Republicans the House and Senate? “It’s a tough election, and Obama wins narrowly and Democrats are in the minority,” Elmendorf said. “That’s the most probable outcome. Divided government.”
Within that framework, it’s very possible that Democrats could eat away at the House GOP’s majority, possibly even cutting it in half. But some Democrats wonder if that wouldn’t help Speaker John Boehner by forcing his remaining Republicans to follow his leadership more regularly to keep GOP priorities on track, especially if they have a Republican majority in the Senate waiting to move them forward. “There’s about 50 seats Boehner can’t control now at all,” said David Introcaso, an analyst with the Marwood Group and a former top aide to House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md. “He could lose some of them—actually lose seats—but gain more authority. It could be paradoxical.”
If Obama wins a second term, Republicans hold the House, and Democrats keep the Senate, then the status quo will be set in stone. It would be hard to imagine any softening of GOP hostility to Obama or more receptivity in the Democratic-controlled Senate to Republican legislation. All sides would feel vindicated, and no one would have an incentive to recast or reshape current legislative behavior.
This article appears in the October 29, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.