Given the closeness of Senate races in Iowa, Kansas, Georgia, and Colorado, it is still uncertain which party will control the Senate at the end of the day tomorrow (though Republicans are of course favored to do well). What is certain, however, is that the results will likely be, from a short-term domestic policy perspective, relatively inconsequential. Given that the Republicans are certain to hold the House of Representatives, there are two possible scenarios for our federal government for the next two years: (1) either the Democrats hold on to the Senate and the status quo persists, or (2) the Republicans take the Senate and President Obama spends the rest of his term reluctantly making veto and signing statements. Neither would enable much substantial deviation from the infamous gridlock and lack of productivity that has made Americans revile their government. That’s not to say the elections are unimportant. They will have a long-term impact on issues like the makeup of the judiciary and U.S.-Iran relations — topics that, ironically, have not featured prominently in the Congressional campaign.
So let’s assume Republicans seize the Senate tomorrow. How will public policy be affected?
For all their blustering about repealing the Affordable Care Act, it is highly unlikely that the Republican leadership could roll back what has already been implemented, even using the “budget reconciliation” process that would only require a 51-vote majority in the Senate. Senator Mitch McConnell, who will be Majority Leader if the Republicans take the Senate on Tuesday, attracted the ire of his hyper-conservative base when he tried to downplay expectations of full repeal. Unfortunately for his base, however, Senator McConnell is right: elimination of the president’s signature achievement is impossible, because any action — even action that comes through the reconciliation process — will be subject to presidential veto. While Obamacare may not be popular, neither is full repeal. Congressional Republicans are unlikely to risk another shutdown over the law.
It is similarly unrealistic to anticipate substantial legislation on other salient domestic policy questions on president Obama’s agenda, like immigration reform, the minimum wage, or universal pre-kindergarten. The current Republican House blocked progress on all of these issues, and there is no reason to expect a different result in the next two years (unless the Democrats picked up seats in the Senate, but that’s just not in the cards). President Obama has already indicated that he will use his executive authority to grant legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants some time between Tuesday and the end of 2014, and it’s not clear whether the election will influence the president’s decision in this area.
On the other hand, Republicans will certainly not pick up enough seats to override President Obama’s vetoes of their elements of their domestic policy agenda (insofar as they have one). Republicans’ best hope is to load small-ball political agenda items like the Keystone XL pipeline into a budget proposal and threaten a government shutdown if the president does not sign it. In other words, a return to the status quo ante.
That said, President Obama still has a tremendous stake in what happens on Tuesday, as Republican congressional control will considerably diminish his chances of securing a strong legacy.
The president can count on even greater obstruction of his nominees for judicial and administrative vacancies, which has already been a challenge throughout his presidency. Republicans will surely block many of the president’s appellate court appointments, lessening his ability to nudge the federal judiciary to the left. Moreover, much has been made of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s age and health. If she dies or resigns in the next two years, it will be very difficult for the president to get another liberal nominee through the Senate approval process.
Additionally, a Republican Senate could have significant long-term implications on American foreign policy, especially U.S.-Iran relations. GOP leaders have already touted plans to compel a vote for tougher sanctions on Iran, which current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has blocked while the administration pursues nuclear talks with the Iranian government. Given their unhappiness with the president’s handling of foreign policy, Republicans will work to derail these negotiations, and perhaps push the president in a more hawkish direction on issues like ISIS and Ukraine.
In sum, we have little reason to expect any progress on pressing domestic issues during a time of divided government, though the makeup of the Senate will still affect the president’s long-term legacy. Whether this bleak prediction proves true or not largely depends on the willingness of Republicans to finally cast aside partisan divisions and cooperate for the good of the American people.
Nicholas O’Farrell, a sophomore studying political science, is the national editor of Stanford Political Journal.