Experts: GOP Senate win won't change business in Congress

McFadden talks to supporters
Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Mike McFadden talks with supporters after an Oct. 1 debate with Sen. Al Franken in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery / For MPR News

It's looking more likely that Republicans will take control of the U.S. Senate next year. So, what happens to legislation and lawmaking if that happens?

Republican Senate candidates, including Mike McFadden in Minnesota, argue that with a GOP majority, senators would team up with the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to tackle big issues that haven't been addressed under divided government.

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But it's not that simple, national experts say. Senate Democrats, for instance, will still hold enough seats to filibuster, or block, legislation they oppose, and President Obama will be able to veto anything that he disagrees with that does make it out of Congress.

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Still, Republicans have been pushing the get-things-done argument in the weeks leading up to Election Day Tuesday. On the campaign trail, Republicans say deregulating energy policy, repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act and cutting government spending are on the to-do list if they win the Senate.

McFadden suggested earlier this month a Senate Republican majority could lead to a dramatically simpler U.S. tax code.

"Whether you like Republicans or don't like Republicans, they're not going to do that much when they're in control of the Senate."

Even with a Republican-controlled Senate, however, people shouldn't expect anything dramatic for at least two years, said Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute.

"You're not going to see major changes in legislation," he said. "Whether you like Republicans or don't like Republicans, they're not going to do that much when they're in control of the Senate."

Democrats have run all or part of Congress the past six years and Obama has signed almost every bill that's passed, including the controversial Affordable Care Act. Tanner expects Obama will use his veto pen to defend his legacy and keep the health care law intact.

"No matter what the Republicans say during the campaign, the Affordable Care Act is unlikely to be repealed over the next couple of years," he added.

Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky says he plans to write language into spending bills to block the administration's environmental policies and push GOP priorities. But that approach likely won't succeed, either, said Norm Ornstein, a longtime congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Obama would veto those spending bills, he said, "and the alternative is you shut down the government."

Republican control of Congress would still be significant. A GOP majority in the Senate means executive branch and judicial nominees will have a much harder time getting confirmed. Republicans will have more power to initiate investigations and decide what legislation comes up for a vote.

Republicans will try to put Democrats on the defensive by holding votes to repeal the medical device tax and the mandate that employers offer insurance to their workers, Tanner said.

Trade policy may be one of the few areas where the president and a Republican Senate may agree. Obama is asking Congress for more authority to negotiate a trade deal with Asia.

Overall, Tanner says Republicans will probably try to play it safe for the next two years.

Another reason Republicans may be cautious: Many Senate Republicans who represent Democratic-leaning states will be on the ballot in 2016.

"Congressional leadership isn't what really counts," Tanner said. It's going to be the presidential candidate in 2016. Nobody really wants to go on the record now, not knowing what that (candidate's) plan is going to be."

Republican leaders, however, may also need to appease conservative members impatient for results, Ornstein said.

At best, he expects a temporary truce between the parties over the next two years. At worse he expects either a shutdown or an attempt to impeach Obama.

"If you're in the majority," he said, "you're going to be pushed in directions you don't necessarily want to go."