Fresh Hope for Compromise as Republicans Take Senate

It might be in both parties’ interest to produce some compromises in the next two years.

A worker does maintenance on top of the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington DC, September 8
A worker does maintenance on top of the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington DC, September 8 (Architect of the Capitol)

As Republicans are set to take control of the United States Senate following Tuesday’s election, President Barack Obama’s chances of achieving much during his remaining two years in office might seem slim. But there are some reasons to be optimistic. After six years of gridlock, the two parties might yet work out at least a few issues.

Since Obama was first elected in 2008, Republicans have been steadfast in resisting almost his entire agenda. Their opposition to his health reforms gave them back control of the House of Representatives in 2010 when the country arguably needed its politicians to focus more on the economy and the federal budget, both then deep in the red. Proposed economic and fiscal policy changes have since stalled in Congress as Democrats refuse to rein in entitlement spending while Republicans reject tax increases.

Yet it is on tax that the Council on Foreign Relations’ James M. Lindsay sees some hope for a deal. Democrats and Republicans agree that the tax code is overly complicated, discouraging investment and job creation. The priority for Democrats is raising more revenue from high-income earners while Republicans want to give companies tax relief. But both could be done at the same time.

The parties also agree that the defense spending cuts that went into effect last year as a result of their earlier failure to reach a budget deal — called the “sequester” — have been too crude. “So it may be possible given that consensus to rework rules of sequestration in a way that would work better for the military,” Lindsay suggests. The challenge there is that Democrats also want to soften cuts to domestic spending programs which Republicans are less inclined to do.

Finally, Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress should be more likely to give the president the authority he needs to negotiate comprehensive trade agreements with the European Union and countries on the Pacific rim. His own Democratic Party tends to be more skeptical of liberalizing trade, fearing job losses in the United States.

The reason Lindsay is somewhat optimistic is that both parties have an interest in working together.

In the case of the president, the argument is he wants to have a successful last two years, so he’s going to find ways to work with Republicans. The argument on the flip side is that Republicans want to show that they can govern, especially since they face very tough electoral challenges in 2016.

As Politico reported last week, the senatorial elections two years from now will favor Democrats. “A half dozen first term Republicans are up for reelection in states President Barack Obama won in both 2008 and 2012.” And their reelection battles will be even tougher if Hillary Clinton, the popular former secretary of state, is the other party’s presidential candidate that year.

Some Republicans favor bargaining with the president for that reason. But they do so at their own peril. The party’s populist wing, which emerged in opposition to Obama in 2010, is prone to consider any attempt at compromising with Democrats close to treason. Because it presents a more formidable challenge to most Republican legislators in their primary elections than their Democratic opponents do in November, most are comfortable doing nothing for fear of upsetting their voters. As a consequence, the outgoing Congress has probably been the least productive in American history.

Another factor that cautions against optimism is Obama himself. He has spent more time chastising Republicans for their supposed intransigence than talking with them. The few times a deal seemed possible, on the budget and on military intervention in Syria last year, his administration botched the opportunity for bipartisan agreement by asking too much. It doesn’t seem the case that his underlings have learned much from those experiences.

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