Senate Democrats held on to control of the chamber Tuesday night, but the challenges they face have barely begun.
On an otherwise rough night, Democrats cheered Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s defeat of tea party-backed GOP candidate Sharron Angle in Nevada and their once-in-doubt victories in West Virginia and California.
But as of midnight, Democrats had suffered a net loss of at least five Senate seats to Republicans, with the possibility of losing at least three more in late races in the West. Come January, Reid and his diminished ranks must grapple with emboldened Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and an unruly House GOP majority.
The new dynamic may force Senate Democrats to act in some ways like an obstructing minority party, given the House’s ability to drive most tax and spending bills and Senate Republicans’ enhanced power to filibuster just about anything Democrats bring to the floor.
The new Senate could be built for gridlock over the next two years as both parties seek to position themselves for the 2012 presidential election.
Far from the filibuster-proof, 60-vote majority Reid enjoyed for six months in the 111th Congress, Democrats will have to operate with only a handful of seats, and perhaps as few as one, over 50. Such a thin majority changes all the rules.
Democrats have hinted for a while about trying to change Senate rules so the minority cannot use filibusters to block bills from even being debated. Democratic leaders have not considered eliminating filibusters on bills already on the floor, however.
Limiting filibusters could be the way Democrats are able to force floor debates on their priorities even if they cannot bring those bills to a vote. Republicans have already proved adept at forcing Democrats to muster a filibuster-proof 60 votes for all major, and some minor, legislation.
Now, McConnell will have a lot more room to maneuver with a minority of at least 46. That means he will have the luxury of letting some of his Members vote with Democrats, when necessary, while retaining the 41 votes he needs to wield an effective filibuster.
Over the past two years, McConnell struggled at times to keep his minority of 40, 41 as of January, unified against Democrats. However, his successes grew as the midterm elections approached this year.
McConnell said last month that his top goal over the next two years is to make President Barack Obama “a one-term president,” a statement that did not augur well for bipartisanship or for a warmer relationship between Reid and the flinty Republican leader.
But McConnell recently clarified that he does not want to see Obama fail.
“I want him to change,” McConnell told Roll Call on Monday. He said he believes the president will attempt to engage Republicans next year, “because he’ll have to. ... The day after the election, he’s in cycle.”
McConnell also argued that GOP wins should not be viewed as the public’s wholesale endorsement of the party. “This is not about us. ... There is no poll data showing the public is in love with us.”