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As the top Congressional leaders huddle with President Obama to discuss the post-election reality in Washington, their own individual political needs are sure to be driving the conversation as much as details about the issues on the table. And while they react to what happened in this year’s election, their focus will really be on the one scheduled 732 days from now.
The Presidential Race
Senator Mitch McConnell, who is expected to become the Senate Majority leader in the New Year, will have to oversee a caucus where several of its members are expected to be running for President.
Former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Jim Manley, said numerous senators running for President “doesn’t bode well for getting things done. It’s a potentially toxic situation.”
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has made no secret that he is actively pursuing the quest to the White House, has already said he’s talked to McConnell about his preferred Senate agenda.
Another is the combative Senator of Texas, Ted Cruz, who orchestrated last year’s government shutdown and vowed to continue an aggressive approach even though his party has won the majority in the Senate. At his news conferences the day after the election, McConnell noted that he received a phone call from Cruz and they had a cordial conversation.
Then there’s Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who was instrumental in the Senate’s passage of comprehensive immigration reform but has since had to walk back his support after he received backlash from conservatives for his role. He could heavily dictate if or how immigration moves forward.
In addition, Utah Senator Mike Lee, another firebrand conservative, and Ohio’s Rob Portman have all indicated that a 2016 presidential run might be in their future.
The Senate Map
For the past two years, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid knew that Democratic Senators faced a difficult scenario in the 2014 elections. Of the one-third of senate seats up for reelection in 2014, Democrats held 21 of them compared to Republicans who only had to defend 13. Even in an optimal political environment for Democrats, the math was not on their side. So Reid strategically ran the Senate ensuring that Democrats would not be forced to take difficult votes that would make their reelection even more difficult.
In 2016, the tables are turned – and the math is even worse for Republicans than it was in 2014 for Democrats. Republicans will be forced to defend 23 seats while Democrats will only have to worry about nine. If McConnell wants to keep his majority, he has to worry about nearly half of his caucus running for reelection.
Democratic strategist Doug Thornell pointed out on MSNBC Thursday that of the nearly two dozen Republicans up for reelection in 2016, nine are in states that President Obama won.
“A lot of these folks in blue states can’t afford to be viewed as dysfunctional or obstructionists,” Thornell said.
President Obama has two years left of his presidency, and this is the critical time of a president’s career when he tries to burnish a legacy, which will definitely impact how he works with Congress. And it could have repercussions for Republicans and even Democrats.
Presidential historian Allan Lichtman said Obama should not be afraid to use his veto pen, something he’s done only once in six years, even if it angers the Republican controlled Congress.
“He would be well advised to veto things he doesn’t want,” Lichtman said on MSNBC Thursday.
On the other hand, a president worried about his legacy is also more willing to pass legislation that his party doesn’t like. For instance, President George W. Bush forced Congress to pass TARP legislation to bail out financial institutions during the financial crisis despite opposition from his party, President Bill Clinton pushed the Glass-Steagall Act that deregulated Wall Street’s financial activity with more support from Republicans, and President Ronald Reagan passed the Civil Liberties Act, which gave WWII era Japanese Americans reparations, with the support of Democrats.
“If you look back historically, this is a time when interests of members on the Hill begin to diverge pretty dramatically with the President’s,” Manley said.
While the President is worried about his legacy, the Democrats will be worried about not only getting reelected in 2016 but helping their presidential candidate. And a presidential legacy and a potential presidential agenda don’t always mesh.
But Lichtman argues that Obama can both protect his legacy and help Democrats politically.
He said that the President should make use of executive orders because “it helps Democrats going into 2016” because they will need a record of accomplishment, regardless of how it gets done.
The House Majority
While House Republicans have gained the largest majority in more than 50 years, it is a majority they want to protect. House Speaker John Boehner is going to do little – intentionally – to jeopardize that majority.
What's more is that Boehner will have to corral a raucous caucus who will be more conservative and will feel emboldened to act boldly and quickly with their new expanded majority.
Politics is always a central component to policy making, and while the powwow of Republican and Democratic House and Senate leaders with President Obama might sound conciliatory on its face, each leader has his or her own political reality to protect.