Illustration by Jonny Ashcroft
If you’re inclined to trust the polls, the Republican Party is poised not only to remain tethered to its majority in the lower chamber, but is primed to seize control of the U.S. Senate as well. If this occurs and the GOP succeeds in capturing at least six seats in the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body, both houses of Congress will be united against a Democratic president for the first time since Newt Gingrich rode his “Contract with America” to power 20 years ago.
The looming midterms have been called the “the Seinfeld election,” because much of the long, sluggish campaign seems to have been about nothing. Republicans, lacking a thoughtful national agenda, have run squarely against an increasingly unpopular President Obama, while small-ball playing Democrats, stuck in a defensive posture, can only offer this dreary rationale: “Stick with us; things could be worse.”
Last month, when the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll asked voters what message they intended to send to Washington, a mere 13 percent said they would be voting in support of Republican polices. An even smaller margin said they would be voting to embrace Democratic ideas. But 42 percent of the respondents said they’d didn’t have a message in mind at all – other than, perhaps, throwing the rascals out.
What we are seeing on the electoral front, as is often the case in American politics over the past several decades, is the choice between lesser evils. As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote yesterday, “I think of that maw as nature’s response to the election, its attempt to wipe the slate clean, or rather swallow it whole and start from scratch.”
So what does happen if Republicans take control of the Senate? We might not start from scratch, but certainly, things won’t get better for Obama. After all, even the Republican majority in one chamber of Congress has proved enough to stifle much of his second-term policy agenda already: from immigration reform, addressing climate change, to gun control. And since Republicans are still highly unlikely to ever command the two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate needed to override a White House veto, they won’t be able to impose their own will on him either.
Indeed, the gridlock will go on, but the gavels of power will be placed in new hands, as Republicans take command of all Senate committees. To the victor go the spoils, meaning Mitch McConnell will become majority leader, replacing Harry Reid, while ranking Republicans on each committee will get the chance to move up and chair the committee, a powerful position that determines which bills get debated and which don’t.
All of this means our own Patty Murray, Washington’s senior senator, will lose her coveted position as chair of Budget Committee chair, which she assumed in 2012, a year after Reid handed her the job of chairing the bipartisan “super committee,” a 12-member panel that tried, but ultimately failed, to come up with a major deficit reduction package acceptable to both parties. Heading the Budget Committee is a place of special influence in the Senate, responsible for drafting Congress’s annual budget plan and has jurisdiction over the Congressional Budget Office.
“We will lose a considerable amount of power in Washington state if they win,” U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott told Seattle Weekly last week.
As chairwoman of the committee, Murray, first elected in 1992, was able to call attention to economic consequences of global warming. In August, Murray, the Senate’s sixth most senior member, sent a strongly worded letter to her colleagues urging them to address climate change as an economic imperative.
Her successor, if the Senate falls into Republican hands, is Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Rated the fifth most conservative senator by National Journal, Sessions has been an enthusiastic supporter of a national amendment to ban same-sex marriages. Equally alarming, at least to true blue Washingtonians, is the prospect of the Senate Environmental Committee, now run by California’s Barbara Boxer, moving to Sen. James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who two years ago wrote and published The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.
Of lesser import, is Murray giving up her seat as chair of the Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, whichd more than likely would revert to moderate Republican Susan Collins of Maine.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, meanwhile, will have to relinquish her lead role as chair of the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship to ranking Republican Jim Risch of Idaho. Cantwell has been an effective leader in expanding access to capital for small businesses and pushing for new trade opportunities for Washington-based companies. In 2010, Cantwell played a pivotal role in passing the landmark Small Business Jobs Act. Obama, in signing the legislation into law, called her a “champion of small business.”