WASHINGTON, DC — Paralyzed for months by the tight and divisive 2012 presidential election, the lumbering giant that is official Washington is about to reawaken, facing a long list of hard issues and votes that would have given even the most congenial Congress fits.
Midterm presidential elections are always a tricky season for anyone looking to get anything done in Washington: Neither party has much incentive to cooperate, and for the minority party, the prospect of controlling the White House come January acts as a powerful incentive to do nothing.
But this year has been significantly worse. With Republicans in control of the House, Democrats of the Senate, and partisanship at an all-time high, the atmosphere has been toxic even on good days, and the election has only made it uglier.
The wheels of government were grinding a halt long before the electoral homestretch began in September — dozens of critical bills were essentially put on hold in Congress while federal agencies began slow-walking numerous environmental, labor, and health regulations.
The end of the election will give us some answers.
Regardless of who wins the presidential election, changes in the makeup of either chamber now appear unlikely: Indeed, the Senate’s partisan makeup looks to stay virtually unchanged, with most observers predicting a near-identical 53 to 47 Democratic majority, give or take a vote either way.
And despite chest thumping from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Democrats have almost no chance of taking the House from Speaker John Boehner. Even a significant shift in the numbers appears unlikely now.
Although staff in the House and Senate will likely get back to work in the days immediately following Tuesday’s voting, leadership aides in both chambers have acknowledged that action on the dozen or so major pieces of legislation won’t start in earnest until after Thanksgiving, and could continue into Christmas Eve.
In fact, in the House, votes on most of these issues aren’t scheduled until December, according to aides, which should give leadership in both parties time to try and map out a strategy for moving forward.
But beyond the basic process outlines, little about the lame duck is, or likely will be, certain.
On its face, an Obama win would appear to provide the best opportunity for something to be done before the end of the year on the fiscal crisis and many of the bigger ticket items still on Congress’s plate, since under a status-quo scenario, punting would have few tangible advantages for either side.
And if this were almost any other Congress of the modern era that might be true: Bitter partisan elections have on occasion yielded to compromise in the weeks following as ideological warriors lick their wounds.
But this is no normal Congress.
The House is dominated by a deeply divided Republican Party with old-school moderates and pragmatists increasingly at odds with their fiery, ideologically pure conservative colleagues. That has put leadership in a bind when trying to cut deals: While Old Bulls in the party may back it, so many conservatives have resisted even modest compromises so strongly it has tied leadership in knots.
As for the Senate, there is virtually no chance that the gridlock of the last two years will change. Being in the majority in the Senate comes with a few perks — for instance, you can decide what bills to put on the calendar, and your members are committee chairmen rather than ranking members. But actual control of the chamber is not one of them.
Thanks to the 60-vote filibuster threshold and its application to virtually every vote of consequence, in reality the minority party controls the chamber just as much as the majority. And until one side or the other has a super majority, or attitudes soften in Washington, that divided leadership isn’t likely to change.
With no clear winner — and thus no real mandate from the voters — neither party will have much of a reason to bend on its mostly deeply held beliefs, particularly when it comes to the issue of raising taxes to help fend off the fiscal cliff.
More fundamentally, no one in Washington — not in the White House, not in the Senate and not in the House — has demonstrated an affinity for compromise over party in the last two years.
The idea that Obama, Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will suddenly find the magical formula to bipartisan comity is, at best, implausible.
To be sure, there will be attempts at forging yet another grand bargain, and any fiscal cliff legislation will likely become a target of lobbyists for virtually every issue imaginable as they look to hitch their car to that train out of Capitol Hill for the year.
And there will also be plenty of shuttle diplomacy between Congress and the White House, late-night weekend meetings as members huddle in an effort to find a way forward.
But if the last two years are any guide to how things may play out, don’t count on the sound and the fury to be much more than that. Even on the fiscal cliff and spending sequester — the one area that there will be the kind of pressure that can force Congress to act — any major agreement is unlikely.
As a result, short-term extensions to bills and stop gap measures, which have essentially been this Congress’s only real accomplishments, may have the best chance of actually making into law by January 1.
If Mitt Romney takes the White House, Republicans will make a strong push to essentially punt the entire fiscal cliff/tax reform package into next year to give their man a crack at fixing it.
Republicans in both chambers could also look to push off work on a number of measures that have either expired or are set to expire at the end of the year, including the farm bill, the so-called Medicare “Doc-fix,” unemployment insurance and potentially an extension of federal wiretapping authorities.
Other measures, including several national security measures and a key cyber security bill, could be passed or simply abandoned until next year.
Of course, Democrats won’t make any of that any easier to do than they have to. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has already made it clear he has no intention of working cooperatively with a Romney administration, and his party will likely view the lame duck as their last best chance to get any of their priorities done.
Indeed, last week Reid bluntly called Romney’s insistence that he can work across the aisle “laughable” and warned that “Senate Democrats are committed to defending the middle class, and we will do everything in our power to defend them against Mitt Romney’s Tea Party agenda.”
It’s a game plan that should be familiar to Republicans — after all, they essentially deployed it following the 2010 election when they took back the House and bolstered their numbers in the Senate. McConnell’s strategy for electoral success this year — which he laid out in the days following the 2010 Tea Party election — rested on the notion that Republicans had to remain united in opposition to the president while avoiding the sort of ideological and linguistic pitfalls that have hurt Republicans in the past, particularly in the 1996 and 2006 elections.
Democratic operatives in the Senate have made it clear that they will adapt that strategy to their own needs if Romney wins, hoping to portray themselves as the only thing standing between the American people and devastating changes to social security, Medicare, and other popular programs.
And while there may be some Senate Democrats who wind up crossing party lines, the dwindling number of moderates in the chamber make it unlikely McConnell could muster enough to break most filibusters even if he were to take control of the chamber.
A Obama loss could also send the regulatory apparatus in the executive branch into overdrive. One of the biggest areas of difference between Obama and Romney has been over the use of regulatory authority to control pollution, shift the country towards a green-energy economy and protecting consumers from bankers and Wall Street.
With numerous rules in the pipeline, agencies will almost assuredly rush as many out the door as possible before Romney slams it shut.
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.