The good news is, no more gridlock...

By Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein

Yet even with this audacious victory, some items remain on the GOP agenda that simply couldn’t be wedged into a reconciliation bill. These include changes to Social Security, repeal of financial reform, possibly the full repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and the nomination of like-minded judges. To secure these measures, McConnell’s first option, of course, is to try to win over enough Democrats to get to sixty votes, or at least get enough Democrats to make the plan appear bipartisan. That is the route George W. Bush used with tax cuts in 2001, and Max Baucus’s willingness to accommodate Bush, despite the fact that the supporters in the end numbered fewer than sixty, made the use of reconciliation at that time seem less illegitimate.

But two things have changed since 2001. First, back then filibusters were still relatively rare events; since Obama, they have become routine, applied to everything, big and small. Second, far fewer Democrats, Baucus included, will be willing to be used in this fashion now. So while there may be a few Democrats who move, far more than the forty necessary to sustain a filibuster are firm in their willingness to do so.

Faced with that roadblock, McConnell’s only other choice is to try to limit the reach of the filibuster. He will not be eager to do this. Filibuster-empowered delay tactics such as holds have become the bread-and-butter means of exerting power by many senators on both sides of the aisle. But the Senate leader quickly finds himself under immense pressure from the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and others to throw caution to the wind. If McConnell can find fifty votes to pass through a bill that fundamentally alters the policy landscape, eviscerating or erasing health reform and financial regulation and changing Social Security and Medicare, and confirming a slew of forty-something conservative judges who will be on the bench for decades, there is a better-than-even chance that he would succumb to temptation and erase the filibuster rule by fiat.

Would a President Romney, who, after all, has endorsed many of these elements in the course of his campaign, veto these bills? Not a chance. Would he be able, in his early days, to influence their content, perhaps by including in the Medicare plan a continuation of traditional Medicare as an option for seniors, and by adjusting the inflation levels for increasing the vouchers given to seniors? Maybe, especially since Ryan and Senator Ron Wyden announced a plan in December with those elements included. But it is very likely that Republican conservatives would seize their window of opportunity to enact at least semirevolutionary change.

Of course, there is another possibility with a Romney presidential victory: continued divided government, either because disgruntled voters throw Republicans out of their majority in the House or because they do not give Republicans the necessary three-seat gain to win a majority in the Senate. Would Romney be able to navigate through to bipartisan compromises here? For instance, could he, as a Republican president, do what Barack Obama has been unable to do: convince a significant number of Republican lawmakers to accept tax increases or defense cuts as part of a deficit-reduction plan? We are dubious. Any attempt to find common ground with Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats or Harry Reid and Senate Democrats would be met with staunch resistance by the conservatives who dominate the Republican ranks in Congress and who do not trust Romney to begin with. Alternatively, if Romney were to sign legislation passed by a Democratic Congress without significant GOP votes, he would be directly thumbing his nose at his own party’s far-right base, which holds sway over 95 percent of the Republicans in the House and at least 85 percent in the Senate. There is little in his background or current run for the nomination that suggests he has that kind of courage.

[Return to What if Obama Loses: Imagining the consequences of a GOP victory]

Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein collaborated on this article. Mann is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


  • Hopeful on January 05, 2012 10:59 AM:

    Wow, never thought of it that way. I tend to think of all politicians as corrupt usurpers. You make it seem appealing, thanks.

  • Rothgar on January 14, 2012 11:03 PM:

    My prediction from 2008 was that if the GOP managed to demogogue (or in fact filibuster) their way to victory in 2010 they will win in 2012 and cease to exist by 2020. The fallout for ordinary Americans of this going to be harsh. I sincerely hope I am wrong; occupy is giving me hope that I will be wrong.

  • Anonymous on January 17, 2012 5:34 PM:

    This is a quote from an article on the web site Balkinization. I like their opinions better.

    "Barack Obama is a "reconstructive" president in Skowronek's model, by which I mean that we are at the beginning of a new party system that will be dominated by Democrats."

    "Suppose, though, that I'm wrong. (Indeed, Skowronek himself does not think that Obama is a reconstructive president, or at least is unsure about that.) In that case, we are still in the Reagan/conservative era. With that assumption, Mitt Romney looks an awful lot what Skowronek calls a "disjunctive" or end-of-regime presidential candidate."

  • FriscoSF on January 17, 2012 6:59 PM:

    Sorry, the future is GRIM

    EVEN when Obama had OVERWHELMING MAJORITIES in Congress..
    He was too weak or cowardly to overturn the Bush Tax cuts

    The Bush tax cuts are pretty much Permanent under Obama

    Maybe if Obama wins in 2012 and then resigns...
    Joe Biden might have the courage to end the tax breaks

  • wally on February 10, 2012 6:20 PM:

    I don't see McConnell going "nuclear." That, I recall, was the term to be used for essentially eliminating the filibuster. Too much power would be lost for Repub senators in the future. I just dont' think the Tea Partiers have that much sway in the Senate. Indeed, McConnel and DeMint might be for it but I don't think they could sway their whole caucus.

    That said, I agree with others that if the Repubs do go nuclear, then the disruption in society will be so immense that the old, sick and lower middle class will suffer immensely but then later the Republicans will pay.

  • micoz on March 10, 2012 8:39 AM:

    Remember what prosperity and growth were like? Remember when the unemployment rate was way below 8 percent...like about 5.5 percent? Remember when businesses were expanding, jobs were plentiful, part-timers were people who wanted to do a little something in their retirements to keep busy, investors could count on 11 percent a year, housing was booming, there were construction cranes in all the big cities, and America wasn't deep in debt and awash in ever expanding entitlements?

    Remember when most Americans felt security and optimism in their financial lives?

    That's what it will return to when Republicans rescue America from the left-wing community organizer.

  • Doctor Chim Richalds on March 11, 2012 4:30 PM:

    @micoz Like in the Clinton era? Yeah, that was pretty awesome!