At some point during the last two weeks, Democrats in Washington began privately acknowledging that they will almost certainly lose their majority in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday. Rather than discussing strategies for winning, they have shifted to excuses and explanations for the probable loss: an unpopular president, an economic recovery hardly anybody feels, a map dominated by conservative states, voters unsettled by terrorism and Ebola.
And the Republicans? "We're not measuring the drapes yet," a Senate GOP aide said — but then he eagerly mused about what victory might bring. That's something Republicans around the country have been doing this week.
Some are talking about using their likely majority to push for Republican-friendly compromises on issues such as the federal budget and immigration reform.
"The most important challenge the party faces is restoring its brand in the eyes of the voters," said John Feehery, a former aide to Newt Gingrich. "If we don't restore our brand by getting stuff done, we'll be handing the White House to Hillary Clinton." That means compromise and bipartisanship — at least enough to demonstrate that Republicans know how to govern.
But the reality is that the new crop of Senate Republicans, many of them from the party's most conservative edge, will have won by running against Obama. And in so doing, they have pledged themselves to relentless confrontation.
Four of the new senators likely to be elected, including Tom Cotton, the probable winner in Arkansas, have been endorsed by the zealously anti-tax Club for Growth. Joni Ernst, who may win a close race in Iowa, has proposed to abolish the Department of Education and Environmental Protection Agency. Nebraska's Ben Sasse, who is virtually certain to succeed the more mildly conservative Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), was endorsed by both Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Republicans campaigned for the Senate promising they would repeal Obama's healthcare law, protect the coal industry from new EPA regulations, approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline, and roll back big chunks of the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law. And the voters who put them into office will expect them to keep their word.
Healthcare is already a case in point. Last week, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), contemplating his likely shift from minority to majority leader, rashly admitted to Fox News that he didn't expect to be able to repeal the healthcare law. "It would take 60 votes in the Senate," McConnell said. "No one thinks we're going to have 60 Republicans."
Even Cruz, a take-no-prisoners leader of the party's combative right wing, has acknowledged that arithmetical reality; in a recent newspaper column, he said full repeal would have to await the election of a Republican president in 2016.
But other tea party Republicans reacted angrily to McConnell's practicality, and a spokesman for the senator quickly promised to seek "the full repeal of Obamacare" by dismantling the program through the budget process, which requires only 51 votes. That would, of course, set up an epic veto battle between McConnell and Obama — exactly what hard-line conservatives want, but hardly a recipe for smooth governing.
On other issues, McConnell has sounded pretty hard line himself. Last summer he was captured on tape forecasting his legislative strategy to donors: "In the spending bill, we will be pushing back against this bureaucracy by doing what's called placing riders in the bill," he said. "We're going to go after them on healthcare, on financial services, on the Environmental Protection Agency — across the board." (That shouldn't have come as a surprise; Democrats did the same thing when they controlled both houses of Congress under President George W. Bush.)
Some incumbent GOP senators will be arguing for pragmatism and compromise. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) have said they think the next two years could offer opportunities for bipartisan legislation, as happened during Clinton's second term when both houses were held by the GOP. Portman has been talking up a program he calls "constructive conservatism," including a new healthcare law, large-scale tax reform and job training programs.
But Cruz has been promoting a platform too, and the word "constructive" isn't in it. Cruz's plan includes tea party favorites such as abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and the Export-Import Bank.
That leaves McConnell in the middle, as a conservative who wants to dismantle Obama's agenda — but also prides himself on his ability to keep conflicts from spinning out of control. He reminded Kentucky voters last month that Congress has struck three spending deals with Obama, and "I negotiated each and every one of them."
So don't expect a golden age of bipartisan legislation on big issues; that's unrealistic, especially with a presidential election coming. Instead, get ready for two years of unremitting brinkmanship — some of it within the Republican Party, but mostly between Congress and the White House.