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The U.S. Senate as Post-Election Battleground

The message of the 2008 election for Republicans appears to be: the voters don’t like you, but it could have been worse.  This was certainly true in the Senate. Some familiar Republicans fell — Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina and John Sununu in New Hampshire — victims of the wave of blue which delivered big wins for Barack Obama in their states. Open seats in Virginia, New Mexico, and Colorado flipped from Republican to Democratic. Gordon Smith finally succumbed in Oregon.  But others hung on. GOP incumbents such as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Maine’s Susan Collins, and Mississippi’s Roger Wicker survived.

Some are on the bubble. As of the time of this writing, Minnesota’s Norm Coleman ended with less than a three hundred vote lead over Al Franken and now faces a recount. In Alaska, convicted felon Ted Stevens clings to a narrow lead (although he faces removal by his colleagues). Meanwhile, in Georgia Saxby Chambliss won his race but will go into a runoff, sure to be heavily funded on both sides, because he did not clear the 50% mark.

If some of this “bubble” group can hang on, Republicans, at least on some votes, will still have enough to sustain a filibuster, slowing the runaway train of President-elect Obama and the liberal duo of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. Sure enough, the astute McConnell laid down some parameters less than 24 hours after Obama sealed his historic victory with a statement that read:

I congratulate President-elect Obama and will work with him on behalf of the American people. The Republican leadership stands ready to hear his ideas for implementing his campaign promises of cutting taxes, increasing energy security, reducing spending and easing the burden of an immense and growing national debt. On these, and other bipartisan issues, he will find cooperation in the Senate. We have an opportunity for significant accomplishments on behalf of the American people, and it is my hope and intent that we succeed in the years ahead.

I fully anticipate that President-elect Obama will select well-qualified nominees for the key, early cabinet secretary nominations. And if so, he can count on my support for timely consideration and assistance to ensure a smooth transition for our national, homeland and economic security posts. These times are too important not to move quickly together.

This suggests that McConnell is prepared to take on the new president if he strays from the essentially conservative items on McConnell’s list.

Should Obama try to push through legislation outlawing secret ballot union elections (e.g., “card check”), McConnell will no doubt mount the opposition. Similarly, he seems poised to oppose large spending (although filibuster rules generally do not apply on budget votes) and efforts to re-impose the recently lapsed ban on offshore drilling.

This sets the stage for the greatest mystery of the new administration: which Obama will show up and which agenda will he offer? Will it be the moderate who seemed to advocate the items on the McConnell-approved list, or the ultra-liberal who earned the distinction of McConnell’s most liberal colleague? It is not clear, but provided GOP senators’ numbers do not dwindle any further, McConnell may act as a brake on the most extreme elements of the Democrats’ agenda.

The initial jockeying for position reminds us that McConnell is now the most important Republican in Washington and, until the 2012 presidential race gets underway, effectively the face of the party. Conservatives find comfort in that. As a savvy tactician he did his best to operate in the face of a Democratic majority since 2006 and continually frustrated Democratic moves to, among other things, cut off or condition funds for U.S. troops in Iraq.

But the danger for McConnell and the rump Republicans is great: the country (not to mention the media) is rooting for “change” and supporting the new president-elect, whatever direction he takes. A strategy of defense is likely to be labeled “obstructionist” — or worse — by those expecting Obama to take Washington by storm. There is perhaps no better politician able to withstand elite opinion and media criticism than McConnell. Ever calm and relentlessly focused on conservative aims, he at times seems serenely impervious to his opponents’ barbs.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that McConnell and the Republicans will only play the role of “Dr. No.” In the stalemate over the $700 billion Paulson bailout bill, we saw McConnell work his legislative magic and craft a compromise which eventually passed the Senate, and in turn forced the House to approve the measure. The conservative base may have been peeved, but confidence in the markets gradually returned. And he was widely praised as playing the role of “adult” in the face of misbehaving members in “the other body.”

So the greatest spectator sport in Washington next year may be watching the duel between the experienced minority leader and the brand new President, who never managed to impress his colleagues with his deal-making skills when he was a Senator. In large part, the success of Obama’s first term and the road back to political health for the GOP goes through McConnell’s office.

They could do a lot worse — both of them.