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With Republicans in control of the Senate, here are the five big questions that will dominate politics in the next few months and beyond.
1. Is Obama’s presidency effectively over?
Once Republicans won control of the House in 2010, Obama’s hope of accomplishing the kind of big goals he did in his first two years were largely dashed.
But a Congress with both houses controlled by the GOP will further limit the president. Senate Democrats changed the chamber’s rules in 2013 so that most executive branch and judicial appointments only required a majority vote, allowing Obama to fill his Cabinet and the nation’s federal courts with people who share his views. If Republicans control the Senate, they are likely to block many of Obama’s future nominees.
On most other issues, the gridlock over the last four years is likely to continue. On the economy, entitlement spending, health care and the environment, broad agreement between the deeply conservative House GOP, a Republican-led Senate and Obama is unlikely. The most obvious issue where the two parties can work together is international trade agreements.
Obama still has authority through foreign policy and executive orders, and that may be the extent of his influence. The White House is still actively considering some kind of executive action that would effectively grant legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants, a step on immigration policy and one that Republicans say will only embolden their opposition to the president and make them even less likely to work with him in this last two years in the office. And the president plans to convene conferences, work with governors and try other methods to accomplish his goals outside of Congress. He has already announced a December meeting of officials from both the government and the private sector on early childhood education.
2. Can the Republicans govern?
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, in a recent speech, warned that Republicans needed to avoid government shutdowns and the fiscal battles that have defined their leadership of the House since 2010. Without such changes, he warned, Republicans won’t trust the party enough to elect a GOP president.
But McCarthy’s goals may not be shared by the rest of the party. Calls for impeaching Obama, which the GOP establishment thinks are unwise, are likely to persist if the president acts on immigration without congressional authority. For Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, holding up legislation may not help the broader GOP, but may fit their individual goals of appealing to conservatives who are voting in the 2016 presidential primaries.
In addition, the GOP has struggled to define any kind of agenda beyond looking to roll back Obama’s achievements, which is unlikely to happen as long as the president is still in office and holds a veto. It’s not clear what Republicans will push for, after their efforts to repeal Obamacare are unsuccessful.
3. Is anyone going to challenge Hillary?
The attention of both parties and the press will now shift towards 2016. But it’s still not clear if a credible challenger will emerge to Hillary Clinton, if she opts to run for president as expected. The one candidate who could build the fundraising base and support of party activists to challenge Clinton, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, has repeatedly said she will not run. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have visited the early primary states and may launch campaigns, but it’s not sure either has the appeal to truly challenge Clinton.
Without an opponent, liberal party activists will struggle to accomplish one of their goals: having a true populist candidate as the Democratic nominee. Liberals had hoped to use the primary process to push Clinton to attack Wall Street as Warren does. But without a challenger who could actually win, Clinton will feel little pressure to appeal to the left
4. Who can win the GOP nomination?
The biggest question in politics is the future of the Republican Party. Cruz and Paul are very likely to run, but the GOP remains without any kind of front-runner. The party’s establishment will look closely at two governors who won reelection on Tuesday, Ohio’s John Kasich and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is among the other Republicans expected to be a candidate.
At this point though, neither the party’s base nor its activists have coalesced around anyone. The Democrats could have only a handful of candidates and a very low-intensity primary while Republicans now seem poised for a drawn-out contest.
5. Will voter angst last?
The defining characteristic of politics in 2014 is an electorate that is angry with members of both parties and dissatisfied with its leaders. Obama’s approval rating is declining, but it still remains far ahead of Congress.
There are no signs Washington will become less polarized. In fact, with two houses of Congress opposing Obama, the partisan battles there may intensify. Polls suggest Republicans are growing in their hatred of Hillary Clinton as she becomes less identified with her role as secretary of state and more a Democratic candidate. The Republican presidential candidates, particularly Cruz and Christie, are hardly conciliatory figures.