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opinion | Michael A. Cohen

Winning both houses — a poisoned chalice for GOP

JIM LO SCALZO/EPA

If recent polling is any indication, it seems increasingly likely that Republicans will take control of the US Senate in November.

But hold off on popping those champagne corks — winning the Senate and controlling both houses of Capitol Hill is a poisoned chalice for the GOP, one that will expose the party’s wide divisions and increasingly extremist views.

The problem for Republicans is threefold.

First, they have no agenda. The old mantra of tax cuts, spending cuts, and deficit reduction has largely been replaced by incessant attacks against the president’s leadership. Trying to identify a Republican legislative agenda for the next two years is like trying to find a moderate Republican politician.

Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s pitch for GOP control of the Senate is that he will festoon spending bills with a bunch of unpalatable legislative riders that President Obama will almost certainly veto.

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It’s a recipe for more dysfunction and a continuation of the one legislative skill the GOP has perfected — not governing. And that’s the Republican’s second problem: They no longer know how to or have much interest in governing the country, which is going to be a real issue if they actually have to do it.

Since taking the House in 2011, Republicans have focused almost exclusively on passing bills that have the support of only Republicans and have little chance of becoming law. Outreach to Democrats or President Obama has been a non-starter. It’s small wonder that the 113th Congress is well on its way to being the least productive in modern history. As of mid-September it has only passed 165 bills that became law. In comparison the legendary “do-nothing” Congress of 1947-1948 passed 906 pieces of legislation.

And Republicans can’t even agree among themselves, as their failed effort this summer to pass a bill dealing with border security and immigration showed. That problem grows far worse if they are in control.

That’s the third problem: the GOP’s ever-escalating radicalism. Let’s say McConnell wants to introduce a reasonably moderate piece of legislation to put pressure on the president or make a political point. Easy, right?

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Not so fast. There will always be at least one Republican senator from the right (and likely more) who will see some political benefit in opposing whatever McConnell wants to do. Ideally, Republicans would be working to pass reasonable legislation like immigration reform to improve the GOP’s image with Hispanic voters, but that’s simply not going to happen.

So the new majority leader could introduce an immigration bill and one member of his caucus — presidential aspirant Ted Cruz, for example — will scream “amnesty” and accuse McConnell of selling conservatives out. How about a bill that cuts taxes by 40 percent? The cry will be: Why not 50 percent? A bill that forbids the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases will turn into a call for abolishing the agency.

For someone like Cruz, whose goal is to maintain his support among the party’s most radical base of supporters for his likely 2016 presidential run, there is little incentive to help McConnell — and every incentive to make his life miserable. And if by some bizarre scenario in which Cruz plays the loyal soldier — then Marco Rubio or Rand Paul would take up the role of spoiler. It’s a classic prisoner’s dilemma.

Of course, McConnell could bend to the will of the far right and introduce Tea Party-friendly/deeply unpopular bills (just as Speaker of the House John Boehner was forced to shut down the government last year in a failed effort to kill Obamacare), but then he risks losing the support of the many GOP senators up for re-election in 2016 in blue and purple states. But that’s the only kind of bill he might have a prayer of getting passed. Of course, it would immediately be vetoed by Obama, thus putting McConnell back at square one.

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In short, McConnell, who has spent the past five-and-a-half years throwing political spitballs from the back of the classroom, would be in charge of a caucus he can’t control, would likely be forced to pass bills that would highlight just how radical the GOP has become, and would take the brunt of criticism for the country’s continued dysfunction. On the bright side he’d get a bigger office as majority leader.


Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.