Who's in charge of the Senate?
The House Democrats will have it relatively easy. What remains of the Pelosi Democrats in January, for the most part, will be liberal members from relatively safe seats who will have no responsibility for governing. They can cater to the base to their heart's delight.
But the Senate will be a different story. The dynamic there will be quite fascinating -- and treacherous for Democrats.
The numbers that matter are 23 (Democrats plus independents up for re-election in 2012), 47 (total Senate Republicans) and 60 (the cloture minimum). The name of the game for those 23 will be to balance partisan loyalty against electoral self-interest. From a self-interest standpoint, many of them will feel extreme pressure to join with the 47 Republicans on everything from taxes to health care to regulation.
It doesn't take but a few moments talking to Republican Senate advisors to realize that they lack much respect for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. In fact, at times it is hard to remember that he is the majority leader. The lame duck session, one senior advisor tells me, "is the worse managed session I've ever seen." Reid remains obsessed with small bore items, that advisor complains. Another advisor to a senior Republican tells me that Reid seems fixated on fulfilling campaign promises: "He told voters he'd do the DREAM ACT. He promised [Sen. Tom] Harkin he'd do FDA reform." The advisor then adds, "But he's never had a broad vision. It's just going down the list, checking the boxes" to satisfy various interest groups.
The lack of forceful leadership, combined with the electoral pressure, will create opportunities for Republicans to make their Democratic colleagues squirm. One advisor observes that newly elected Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia ran saying he supported extension of all the Bush tax cuts, but now he's open to Sen. Chuck Schumer's plan to cut off extension above the $1-million mark. A veteran Senate policy guru, meanwhile, points the finger at Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.): "She says how independent she is, but when it matters she votes with the president. The stimulus, health care, financial reform -- all three would have failed without her." It is, he predicts, "going to be a whole lot harder for these guys" to divorce their votes from their rhetoric in the next Congress.
Meanwhile, on the Republican side of the aisle, a veteran advisor says it's "the most serious class" he's seen entering the Senate since he arrived on the Hill 14 years ago. Since voters last month rejected a number of Tea Party-backed Republican candidates -- Sharron Angle, Ken Buck, Joe Miller and Christine O'Donnell -- most of the incoming Republicans are rather mainstream and experienced. They include two former congressmen (Pat Toomey and Mark Kirk), a state house speaker (Marco Rubio), a Bush administration veteran (Rob Portman), a popular governor (John Hoeven), a state attorney general (Kelly Ayotte), a veteran senator and former ambassador to Germany (Dan Coats) and a small businessman who, as one advisor put it, "got pissed off" at what was happening to the country (Ron Johnson). Yes, there is Rand Paul, but he's sounding more like a mainstream Republican than a wide-eyed radical these days. And a number of Capitol Hill Republican can't hide their delight that quirky figures such as Arlen Specter and George Voinovich are being replaced by more serious, reliable conservatives.
Moreover, adversity has bred unity on the Republican side. Each Republican, including the Maine senators, knows what it feels like to have debate cut off by Democrats and to be left with nothing for their constituents. Sen. Susan Collins was left out in the cold on small business issues. Sen. Olympia Snowe was infuriated at one point over what she deemed abuse of Senate rules by the majority. That has fostered a certain solidarity, as evidenced by this week's letter in which all 42 Republicans vowed to filibuster bills before tax and government financing measure are completed.
I've also found no neo-isolationist sentiment brewing. A Senate advisor offers an explanation: "We have a core group here who went through the Iraq war and never refused to give the troops what they needed. The Democrats forced about 70 votes [to cut off funding, enact conditions for withdrawal]," and yet the Republicans held firm. Even Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell weathered a tough 2008 election that, had the war not been an issue, he would have otherwise sailed through. So, while there may not be much interest in wresting management of foreign policy from the president, neither is there any interest in returning to "Fortress America."
The Senate will be the most unpredictable, and, therefore, the most interesting player on the political scene come January. Will the hapless Reid control the body, or will a fluid coalition of red state Democrats and Republicans led by McConnell run the show? Stay tuned.
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