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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.”
Still, Republicans will argue, as McConnell has and incoming Speaker John Boehner did Tuesday night, that the results of the elections are a repudiation of the policies Democrats have pursued and a mandate to cut government spending.
“I’m going to be the leader of a large army after tonight,” McConnell told Republican supporters Tuesday night. He added: “What we’re sensing tonight is a huge case of buyer’s remorse all across America. They told us to change Washington, and we’re going to take our first step tonight, aren’t we?”
Senate Republican ranks are unlikely to be dominated by the tea party-inspired fervor that propelled many House Republicans into office. Most of the GOP class of 2010 is made up of “establishment Republicans,” such as Rep. John Boozman (Ark.), former Sen. Dan Coats (Ind.), former House GOP Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven, and Bush-era Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman (Ohio). Portman has also served in the House.
Tea party-backed winners include Rand Paul in Kentucky, Mike Lee in Utah, Ron Johnson in Wisconsin and Marco Rubio in Florida.
But centrist Republicans are likely to be in short supply, despite the fact that moderate Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire won her race.
For Democrats, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin is the only centrist addition to the Senate ranks, while several moderates retired or were forced to exit this year. For example, Sen. Blanche Lincoln lost to Boozman in Arkansas on Tuesday night, and centrist Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.) retired this year.
There is likely to be serious discussion and disagreements among Democrats in the coming weeks about what they did as a party and a caucus to bring about their current predicament. Just as they have for the past year, Democratic centrists are likely to argue that the party went too far to the left, while liberals will likely claim they weren’t bold enough.
What most Senate Democrats already agree on is that the White House did not provide enough political cover on issues, health care in particular. Earlier this year, Reid made strategic changes to his messaging operation in an attempt to satisfy disgruntled lawmakers who felt the Senate Democratic public relations campaign was not forceful or effective enough.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) told MSNBC on Tuesday night that Democrats need to “continue to focus like a laser on the middle class and small business, but we’ve got to do a better job of communicating.”
Democrats also say that Tuesday night’s results change the equation for the “party of no.”
“You can do that when you’re continuously in an incredibly small minority, but you ultimately have a greater responsibility to govern, and so that will be the interesting part,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) said Tuesday evening.
“The reality is that saying ‘no’ isn’t governing,” he added. “They will be responsible increasingly for coming up with their own vision as to how things have to take place and putting up votes for it and working to seek the type of compromise that the president has always sought.”
Kathleen Hunter and Jessica Brady contributed to this report.