Rep. Bruce Braley may yet become a senator from Iowa. Half a year has passed since Braley, a four-term Democrat from the state’s bluest district, was filmed telling some out-of-state lawyers why they needed to donate to his campaign. If he lost, “you might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee,” said Braley. “If Democrats lose the majority, Chuck Grassley will be the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.”
It was a gaffe par excellence, not just because Republicans got so much out of it. (Say “farmer from Iowa” at any GOP rally there and the crowd stars laughing.) The candidate absorbed the damage, mostly, and has fought his Republican opponent to a tie with a razor-edged, ideological campaign about entitlements and wages.
No: This was a perfect gaffe because Braley was telling his donors the truth. If they cared about nothing else, they needed to realize how close Democrats were to losing committee chairmanships. They could have Vermont Sen. Pat Leahy holding the gavel, or they could have a tort reformer who wanted to eliminate three seats on the D.C. Circuit and lock in a conservative majority for years. Almost none of the campaign promises of 2014 would matter. The majority and the gavel would.
Republicans have had years to imagine what it would be like to have control of the Senate. If they win it, in six weeks, they won’t be able to do much. With a sweep of the races in red states, they’ll win a 52–48 majority. If they upset Democrats in the blue states where the GOP is polling the strongest—Iowa, Colorado, and New Hampshire—they’ll finally restore the majority they lost in 2006. They won’t get close to the 60-vote cloture threshold to pass legislation. Indeed, they’ll already be tapping donors for a 2016 election in which most of the vulnerable seats belong to their party. “If we don’t win the Senate in 2014,” Rick Santorum says in his campaign speeches, “we won’t win it in 2016.” He’s not wrong.
So, how would a Republican Senate change Washington? Conversations with senators, congressmen, and staffers from both parties suggest a brief period of conflict—which would peter out as the presidential primaries got underway—and a long war against the president getting any of the nominees he wants. That’s a good place to start.
The twin filibuster reforms of 2013 were probably the greatest achievements of President Obama’s second term, ending the 60-vote chokepoint for all nominees for offices below the Supreme Court. They allowed the president to get his picks for the Cabinet, for circuit courts—including the D.C. Circuit that is likely to squelch new challenges of the Affordable Care Act. If there was a voter backlash, Democrats never felt it.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has hinted at a new “conversation,” after the election, about undoing the rule change. There’s some worry among Republicans about ramming this through with the majority’s votes, instead of changing the rules with a two-thirds supermajority. That might be viewed as “using the nuclear option to undo the nuclear option.” The change would need to be reframed as a house-cleaning measure, a stand against Harry Reid’s recklessness. Everyone agrees this would be a slog if Republicans won a majority with six red-state wins, and exponentially easier with every seat they picked up in a blue state.
But that might not matter. One Republican aide summed it up this way: “You don’t need the filibuster if you have the committees.” Even a 51–49 Republican majority could vote down Obama nominees. Grassley would get to strike out judicial nominees; Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, who successfully blocked a Nobel Prize nominee for the Fed, would have new sway over candidates for Treasury and the IRS. The safest nominee, paradoxically, might be a high-profile theoretical pick for the Supreme Court, because those fights rally the base and several Republicans will be fighting for new terms in blue states—Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey. It could be tight. Five Republican senators backed Obama’s last Supreme Court nominee, Elena Kagan. Only two—Sens. Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins—remain.
Preventing some Democratic nominee from putting on judicial robes—that could have repercussions for a generation. Two years of adversarial hearings would inflict a sharper, shorter kind of pain, mostly from, yes, Sen. Grassley. “Let’s get to the bottom of something that’s been out there a long time—Fast and Furious,” Grassley told Politico this month for a story about how he and other ranking members might lead. “Let’s get to the bottom of [the] IRS.”
The other chairmen-in-waiting sound less intense. Wisconsin’s Sen. Johnson was the guy whose needling of Hillary Clinton about Benghazi deaths led her to utter the immortal (and usually misremembered) line “What difference, at this point, does it make?” If Sen. John McCain decides to take the Armed Services Committee, Johnson is set to run Homeland Security. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, a Syria and ISIS hawk, would take over Foreign Relations. Both say they’re more interested in policy than show trials; both of them happen to be extraordinarily good at starting media show trials. We are talking about a Wisconsin senator whose own lawsuit against the ACA was dismissed just two months ago.
Every Republican senator and candidate knows that the Affordable Care Act passed in the budget reconciliation process, the only way to get a bill through without the threat of cloture. Every one of them thinks reconciliation can be used to gut it. “I think we got something with this tax issue,” McConnell reportedly told aides after the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare while defining its health care mandate as a tax. “Figure out how to repeal this through reconciliation.”
McConnell no longer talks like that in public. In a revealing interview with Politico’s Manu Raju, McConnell walked through all of his 2015 priorities, all the ways they could be forced through in the budget process. He didn’t promise to repeal Obamacare. He didn’t even say that in a secret (then leaked) speech to a donor conference organized by the Kochs. The current plan is to use next year’s budget process to chip away at the law by ending the medical device tax, or ending the employer mandate, and forcing the president to veto or accept it. Basically, look at what the health care industry wants to change, then expect Republicans to agree with it.
Of course, in the summer of 2013, “the plan” was to avoid a fight over funding Obamacare. Conservatives in the House and Senate forced one, and forced a shutdown. Plenty of Democrats expect a shutdown next year, because Republicans seem to think they can “win one.” Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who’ll be majority whip if his party takes over, has said the blame for a government implosion shifts dramatically if a Republican House and Senate send a bill to the president’s desk. That may have been disproved by the 1995–1996 shutdown, but the theory is unkillable.
“If we take the Senate, we’ve got to deal with Obamacare,” says Texas Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Tea Party winner in 2010 who now holds a safe seat. “Remember, Obamacare was done through the reconciliation process and only took 51 votes.
If we take the Senate, we’ve got the opportunity to either repeal, replace, or fix Obamacare.”
Beyond Obamacare, the theory goes that a Republican Senate can liberate all of the House GOP’s bottled-up dream bills. There are hundreds of them, bill after bill that would cut taxes or drug-test welfare recipients or make it easier to file lawsuits against the executive branch. Some of these priorities, like the deathless bill to allow the Keystone XL pipeline, already might have 60 votes in the Senate. Eleven Democrats are on record wanting Keystone, though five of them are either retiring or on the watch list in this midterm—Montana Sen. John Walsh, North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, and Alaska Sen. Mark Begich.
McConnell, who alternates between promises of a “working Senate” and Bond villain descriptions of how he’ll bring down Obama, has insisted that a Republican Senate would be collaborative. His caucus has other ideas. Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, for one, was raring to use the Congressional Review Act to overturn environmental rules.
“Probably the very first thing to do is to go after the EPA regulations,” said Inhofe. “As these rules go into effect, and they become final, on that day you can file a CRA. I’m going to do that and go after them all.”
Yet Inhofe had a problem with the question. He’d been asked, hypothetically, how Republicans could govern if they won the Senate.
“You mean ‘when,’ ” said Inhofe. “Not ‘if.’ ”