As the dust settled from a presidential and congressional campaign that once threatened seismic change, voters on Tuesday once again opted for divided government. They left the Democrats in charge of the White House and Senate and the Republicans with a still commanding majority in the House.
The status quo results raise more questions than they answer about the prospects for a new Congress and a reelected President Obama to achieve anything of note in his second term, with bitter feelings on both sides of the aisle about the conduct of the nasty and highly expensive campaign. Add to that the many Republicans still determined to dismantle Obama’s biggest achievements, including health care reform.
The most immediate challenge for the president-elect and a new divided Congress is addressing a looming year-end fiscal calamity in which a combination of expiring tax cuts and deep automatic spending cuts totaling $607 billion threatened to jar the economy back into a recession and toss millions of people out of work. The White House and a lame duck Congress will be scrambling to avert the so- called fiscal cliff and possibly raise the $16 trillion national debt ceiling again.
Beyond that, the president and the new Congress will tangle over ways to chart a new fiscal course for the country, including enacting major reforms of the federal tax code, the Medicare and Medicaid federal health care programs, and a long term blueprint for slowing the growth of spending and gradually reducing the debt as a percentage of the gross domestic product.
But whether Obama and the Republicans can find common ground after one of the nastiest and most contentious campaigns -- highlighting sharp differences over tax and spending policy, health care, government regulation, birth control and abortion, to name just a few, remains to be seen.
By practically any measure, the GOP once seemed to have an extraordinarily easy task of winning back control of the Senate and creating a formidable battering ram with the House on Capitol Hill to push through the Republicans agenda of more tax cuts, deregulation, sharp reductions in domestic programs and entitlements and a frontal assault on President Obama’s health care and Wall Street reforms. They needed to pick up four of 23 Democratic seats that were up for election while protecting 10 seats of their own.
The unexpected retirement of veteran Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine., and the disastrous missteps of Republican nominees Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Rep. Todd Akin in Missouri – both favorites of the Tea Party -- cost the GOP a golden opportunity to regain control of both chambers for the first time since 2003.
THE SEATS OF POWER
The Democrats began the evening with a 53 to 47-seat advantage in the Senate, including two independents who vote with them, while the GOP held a 240 to 190-seat advantage in the House of Representatives, with five vacancies. The Democrats scored a handful of crucial pickups, including dramatic victories by former Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren over Republican Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts, Rep. Joe Donnelly’s triumph in Indiana over Richard Mourdock, the state treasurer, and Rep. Chris Murphy’s victory over wrestling magnate Linda McMahon in Connecticut for a seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent.
The Indiana contest captured national attention after Mourdock defeated six-term incumbent Sen. Richard G. Lugar in the May Republican primary. Mourdock’s highly partisan, combative style and controversial comments about rape and abortion doomed his campaign. In Missouri, Democrat Claire McCaskill retained her Senate seat by defeating Republican challenger Akin after he made controversial remarks about rape and abortion as well. In addition, former Maine governor Angus King, an independent, won the Senate race for the seat being vacated by Snowe. King has repeatedly refused to say which party he would caucus with, but the Democrats have courted him and spent money to oppose his Republican challenger.
Elsewhere, Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin appeared to have made history by becoming the first openly gay U.S. Senator, defeating former governor Tommy Thompson in the most expensive Senate race in state history, according to the Associated Press. Between them, the two candidates raised at least $65 million.
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester his Republican challenger, Rep. Denny Rehberg, were locked in a close contest in Montana late yesterday, as were Democrat Heidi Heitkamp and Republican Rep. Rick Berg ( R ) in their battle to succeed retiring Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota.
Former Virginia governor Tim Kaine, a Democrat, defeated former Republican governor George Allen for a seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. James Webb, and Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania both fended off tough GOP challenges to retain their seats. The final makeup of the new Senate won’t be known until the final tallies are in from Arizona, Montana, and North Dakota, but the Democrats were assured of retaining or building on their current majority.
“We said we’d defend all of our seats and would put half of their seats in play,” said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, who took that job last year when others had refused it.
“No one believed me,” she said, “but we did just that.”
While the returns from the House races were also incomplete, the Republicans easily thwarted Democratic efforts to pick up the 25 seats they needed to claim a majority and topple House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio. Boehner said yesterday that the Republican majority “has been the primary line of defense for the American people against a government that spends too much, taxes too much, certainly borrows too much.”
Americans want “solutions that will ease the burden on small businesses, bring jobs home and let our economy grow,” Boehner said at a Republican National Committee event in Washington. House Republicans will “work with any willing partner -- Republican, Democrat, or otherwise -- who shares a commitment to getting these things done,” Boehner said.
Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the conservative leaning American Enterprise Institute, warned that without a clear cut victory in both the popular vote and electoral vote, Obama will face a difficult and unpleasant dual Republican narrative: that he only won the election because of Hurricane Sandy and that he is not a legitimate president. But if Obama prevailed over Romney with impressive numbers after the two had run neck and neck for so long, “Then I think he’s got some leverage.”
“He certainly has leverage in the sense of dealing with the fiscal cliff,” he said. “And the politics of obstruction backfire on Jan. 1 for Republicans,” Ornstein said. “It’s one thing to either block what the president has done and embarrass him . . . but it’s another thing in blocking [action to deal with the fiscal cliff] that you end up having terrible defense cuts that you don’t like along with all those tax cuts reinstated.”