Lame Duck and Beyond
With voters having cast their ballots, President Obama and the Republican Congress should be able to accomplish a great deal if they seize the opportunity.
What might motivate them to work together? The President now has two remaining years in office, time in which he is expected to focus on legacy issues. As he has already demonstrated, the President is prepared to act unilaterally, through Executive Orders and through rulemakings underway or contemplated. But surely the President could reduce potential future litigation risks and advance his legacy by working with Congress, though that will require a change of approach and a willingness to compromise.
Republicans have reasons to offer an olive branch, not least to show the American public in the run up to the presidential elections in 2016 that they can govern. The 2014 Senate races were run in states that naturally favored Republican candidates, including several states in which Democratic incumbents were facing electorates that had voted for Mitt Romney by double digits in 2012. By contrast, Democrats will clearly be on the offensive in 2016, when 34 seats will be contested. Many Senate races will be fought in states much more historically receptive to Democratic candidates, and the party will have the benefit of a presidential race turnout model that boosts Democratic prospects in close races. Of the 34 Senate seats up in 2016, 24 feature Republican incumbents, while just 10 Democrats will be up for re-election. Unlike in 2014, none of the 2016 Democratic Senators up for re-election hail from states that President Obama lost in the 2012 election. The 2016 Senate Republicans, though, must defend six seats in states that President Obama carried in 2012 (Florida, Illinois, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) and two he carried in 2008 (Indiana and North Carolina).
In this environment, many Senate Republicans will likely wish to demonstrate to their constituents that they can work with Democrats to move legislation forward that can be signed into law. Going from being the party in control of only one chamber to being in control of both chambers will put the onus on Republicans to change the narrative of a “Do Nothing Congress” to one of a “Do Something Congress.” Since they remain well short of 60 votes and thus cannot easily overcome even a threatened filibuster by Democrats, Senate Republicans will need to reach across the aisle to move legislation in which they have an interest. Congressional Republicans will no doubt consider using the Budget Reconciliation process, which requires a simple majority in both chambers, to advance major legislative priorities. (But given the limitations inherent to this procedural option, they may find that their options are limited.) Lacking 67 votes in the Senate, congressional Republicans cannot expect to overcome presidential vetoes if they go too far. The new majority no doubt will look for ways to send legislation to the President, giving him the opportunity to use a veto pen that he has only wielded twice in his first six years. This strategy in particular may be used by Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as a pressure relief valve for conservatives who want to confront the President. Once vetoes have occurred and been sustained, the Republican leadership could then pursue more moderate legislative options that the President will sign into law. But even those who wish to get to yes will need to overcome the divisions within their own ranks.
History shows that the last two years of a lame duck President can be productive, even for one facing a Congress controlled by the other party. Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, the last three Presidents to serve two four-year terms, successfully worked with Congress to enact significant legislation or to otherwise achieve landmark initiatives in their first two years in office President Reagan, for example, pushed back against conservatives in his base to negotiate an important arms reduction treaty with the Soviet Union that eliminated the threat of intermediate-range nuclear missiles. Notwithstanding opposition from his party, President Clinton reached agreement with China to normalize trade relations between our two countries. Even though he did not enjoy as much success as Reagan and Clinton, President Bush found common ground with Democrats on a major energy bill, the last “all of the above” energy bill to clear Congress, and signed into law legislation that was essential to dealing with the fallout of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, when the world economy also was at risk.
Finally, there is a real need to address the impact of “sequester” on future spending options, especially the adverse impact it will continue to have on military readiness.
Beyond these more contentious issues, Congress and the White House should be able to reach agreement on a new surface transportation bill, an aviation funding bill, and other bills that historically have enjoyed bipartisan support, such as education reform legislation.
However, little of this will be possible unless the President and the Republican Congress are prepared to give a little to get a lot. We remain optimistic about the prospects. As Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) recently put it, “It’s very possible to get a number of things done if the president is willing to come to the table, and I believe he will.”
In the posts that will follow, we offer our thoughts on major policy areas that will drive the agenda in Washington for the next two years in the run up to the 2016 presidential election and how they might affect you. The next Congress will face the need to extend or reauthorize the nation’s surface transportation and aviation programs, with funding and policy challenges involved in each. It will also need to address the debt limit.
Many other challenging issues await it as well. To give you a sense of what potentially lies ahead, we will sketch out our sense of what is in store in the areas of appropriations and budget matters, energy and the environment, and transportation and infrastructure in future articles.