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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.
“The American voters sent us a message two Tuesdays ago. That message is that they want us to deliver. They want us to work together,” Reid said. “The voters didn’t elect only Republicans. They didn’t elect only Democrats. And they don’t want either party to govern stubbornly, demanding their way or the highway.”
But Senate Republicans disagree, and strongly, citing historic GOP gains in the House and state legislatures, not to mention a pickup of seven Senate seats over 2008. After arguing for several months that public polling proved that GOP intransigence on health care reform, taxes and federal spending was supported by the voters, Senate Republicans view the election results as a mandate for GOP policies.
“What we’ve seen over the last two years is that the president might have a silver tongue, but he also has a tin ear,” said Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.). “He hasn’t listened to the American people; he’s ignored them on jobs and the economy, on debt and on spending, and we heard [the voters] loudly and clearly and we spoke to that.”
On the House side, Republicans are similarly confident that voters gave them permission to pursue their legislative agenda, and they aren’t waiting for the 112th Congress to be sworn in to begin. House Republican aides said Monday that the GOP would continue to push its pre-election agenda for an across-the-board extension of the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, as well as a spending freeze.
House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) said conservatives were well aware of their newfound power even if they remain in the minority for a few more weeks.
“Let me say as we gather in this lame-duck session in the coming weeks, there must be no compromise,” Pence told a group of tea party activists gathered at a rally on the House side of the Capitol. “There must be no compromise on preventing a tax increase on any American. And there must be no compromise in our commitment to repeal Obamacare.”
Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.