WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s earthquake of a victory shook no place harder than the nation’s capital, where the real estate mogul’s stunning electoral triumph will usher in at least two years of unified GOP rule for the first time since 2007.
Republicans’ success in holding on to Congress, fueled by the same dissatisfied forces that carried Trump across the finish line Tuesday night, hands the party the means to dismantle President Obama’s legacy — repealing the Affordable Care Act, rolling back climate change commitments, and ripping up the Iran nuclear weapons pact.
Republican control of the Senate throws the door wide open to the possibility that President-elect Trump will reshape the face of the Supreme Court for a generation, with an immediate nomination to fill a vacancy in early 2017 plus perhaps more in coming years.
“He just earned a mandate,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a press conference in his hometown in Wisconsin, a state, Ryan marveled, that delivered its 10 electoral votes to a Republican for the first time since 1984. Ryan, who kept his distance from Trump in the final month of the campaign, vowed congressional Republicans would work “hand in hand” with Trump to enact “a positive agenda to tackle this country’s big challenges.”
Of course, what constitutes a mandate is itself a contentious topic in today’s deeply divided political world. Fewer than half of US voters backed Trump, and Hillary Clinton led him in the popular vote by slightly more than 200,000 votes.
Like Trump, Senate Republicans defied predictions, clinging to their majority, which will be at least 51 seats. Republicans also, as expected, kept their secure grip of the House, though they lost some seats there, too.
The last time Republicans controlled both legislative branches and the White House was in 2007, when George W. Bush was president.
Democrats in Congress, who thought a Clinton victory would deliver Senate control and at least equal footing with the GOP, mourned the turn of events.
“I never thought I’d say this, but I’m nostalgic for George W. Bush right now, looking at what we may be dealing with,” said Representative Jim McGovern, a Worcester Democrat.
But Trump allies said this is what frustrated voters wanted when they beat back Democratic challenges of incumbent GOP senators in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Missouri.
“You’re going to see things getting done for a change in Washington,” said John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster working for Trump. He said Trump’s win — which united the Rust Belt, Sun Belt, and the Heartland against Washington — signifies that the GOP is more in touch with a part of America than Democrats.
Beyond dismantling what Obama built over the past eight years, Republican leaders will have a real shot at achieving major items on their legislative wish list. Policy objectives could include cutting entitlement programs and undertaking a total overhaul of the tax code, including enacting tax cuts for wealthy Americans and corporations.
“They’ve been handed the legislative keys to the kingdom,” said veteran Democratic strategist Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate minority leader Harry Reid. “If they get their act together, they can move just about any piece of legislation they want.”
One of Trump’s top priorities after taking office in January will be picking a successor to conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February. Obama’s nominee for the open seat, Merrick Garland, has no chance of winning confirmation, thanks to the earlier and continued refusal of Senate Republicans to call a vote on his nomination.
Court-watchers say Trump could conceivably get the chance to name as many as three additional justices, given that three of the eight currently serving are 80 years old or more.
Democrats are likely to dig in on Supreme Court fights. Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey said the minority will have enough seats to block any Trump Supreme Court nominees with a filibuster, “if they are not within the mainstream of American jurisprudence.”
“The fact that we have a very strong Democratic minority in the Senate is going to serve as a check on who he can nominate to the Supreme Court,” Markey said, as well as on some of the controversial legislative measures Republicans might try to pass.
Republican control of the Senate also gives Trump more latitude to nominate conservative Cabinet officials and other agency leaders to shape policy and regulations touching every corner of the US economy.
“Clearly there’s going to be an all-out assault on some of the president’s major accomplishments,” said McGovern, ticking off legacy items like the health care law, the Paris climate change treaty, and Obama’s executive orders on immigration.
He said he is particularly concerned about Republicans “eviscerating the social safety net,” continuing their history of cutting child nutrition and food stamps for low-income families.
Democrats still hold enough seats in the Senate to allow them to mount a filibuster, which gives them some leverage to force Republicans to compromise on legislation and presidential nominations. But Republicans are widely expected to take a page from the playbook Democrats used to pass the Affordable Care Act in 2010 and employ a special maneuver called “reconciliation” to pass a package of key priorities, including a repeal of the health law and tax reform, by a simple majority vote.
The Republican road ahead is not without pitfalls. For one, Trump — who has no prior governing experience — has provided few details on how he would bring campaign promises to reality. How will he make Mexico pay for that “big, beautiful” southern border wall? What will he do if the uranium centrifuges start spinning again in Iran?
Trump embraced the call, on which congressional Republicans have campaigned for years, to tear up Obama’s health care law and replace it with his own less expensive system. But neither Trump nor congressional Republicans have a replacement ready to go for popular aspects of the law, such as mandating coverage for children up to age 26 and preventing coverage denials for people with preexisting conditions.
“Nobody is going to go back on some of the promises” of the health care law, said Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist. “There will be lots of resistance to going back to the way it was before, so settling on a replacement is going to be a significant challenge.”
There are some signs that Trump might choose to pursue an early legislative agenda that would exacerbate tensions within the Republican Party. A policy blueprint drawn up by Trump’s transition team includes items on trade and immigration.
Among the top priorities listed on that document are building the wall with Mexico as part of a larger immigration proposal, and aggressive trade-related moves, including tearing up the decades-old North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico and labeling China a currency manipulator, according to a source who had seen a copy of the document. All of that would be hugely polarizing not just among the American public but also to the Republican caucus.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest asserted it was too early to say what the election results will mean for Obama’s legacy. Trump inherits “a deeply divided Congress [that] has appeared totally dysfunctional in the last two years, and it’s difficult to see how that’s going to change,” Earnest said.
“President-elect Trump and his team will have to navigate that situation, and it won’t be easy.”
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, speaking to reporters Wednesday, declined to say whether he would back Trump’s plan to build a wall on the US-Mexico border, saying, “I want to try to achieve border security in whatever way is most effective.”
“A lot of the things Trump talked about are not the priorities or preferences of a whole lot of senators, Republicans or Democrats. There’s no support for throwing 11 million people out of the country,” said Ayres, the Republican strategist, referring to Trump’s campaign pledges to deport undocumented immigrants.