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Minority Status Doesn’t Dampen GOP Senators’ Hopes

Senate Republicans returned to Capitol Hill on Monday feeling validated by the voters and emboldened to push their agenda in the next Congress, despite failing to win control of the chamber from the Democrats on Election Day.

As the class of incoming GOP Senators met with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and participated in orientation, sitting Republicans rejected Democratic claims that the message from Nov. 2 was a call for more bipartisanship. Democrats will hold a 53-47 advantage beginning in January, but Republicans believe they can control the floor agenda courtesy of skittish Democrats who face the prospect of a tough re-election battle in 2012.

“Let’s not be fooled here, this was a big repudiation of the policies of the last two years,” Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) said in an interview, after speaking to a bipartisan group of incoming Senate freshmen.

“I think most legislation that passes is going to be center-right,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) added.

Republicans argue that the key to GOP success in the months ahead, including during the current lame-duck session, will be the floor votes the minority predicts it can secure on key issues from Senate Democrats who are up for re-election in conservative-leaning states in 2012. GOP strategists further expect the threat of competitive primaries to keep moderate Republicans from siding with the Democrats.

In particular, Republicans are expecting help from Democrats such as Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Jon Tester (Mont.), Jim Webb (Va.) and possibly others.

McCaskill called on Democratic leaders Monday to join Congressional Republicans in banning earmarks. Manchin, who based his 2010 campaign on opposing President Barack Obama’s signature legislative policies and promised not to rubber-stamp the agenda of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), confirmed his commitment to independence, albeit diplomatically.

“You have to look at what’s good for the country and what’s good for my state of West Virginia, that’s the decisions I’ll make and it really shouldn’t be on whose side people are on,” Manchin said. “I’ll basically do what’s right for America and what’s right for my state, it’s very fair to say that.”

Manchin was sworn in on Monday. He won a special election held to succeed the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and must run again in 2012.

Reid, in his opening floor remarks welcoming the Senate back into session following an extended campaign season break, articulated what many Congressional Democrats have been saying since Election Day: Voters want more bipartisanship and an end to gridlock.

He survived a tough challenge from a tea-party-backed Republican to win a fifth term this month. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) also resisted a challenge from a tea party favorite, with Democrats winning tough races in a handful of additional states. Senate Democrats have taken solace in the fact that the GOP tsunami that washed over the country and gave Republicans control of the House did not engulf the Senate.

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