Sen. Mitch McConnell has long coveted the chance to be Senate majority leader, and while he could get the job come 2015, it may be more than he bargained for.
The Kentucky Republican and current minority leader could end up with the narrowest of majorities, with tea party firebrands such as Ted Cruz of Texas holding the power to sink, for example, a Republican budget blueprint if they aren't satisfied.
It would be similar to the scenario faced by Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, whose fractious conference has repeatedly revolted against and thwarted House leadership's agenda.
On most issues in the Senate, of course, 60 votes are still needed and that means working with Democrats. McConnell has said repeatedly that he would run a more open Senate and would seek to restore some semblance of regular order. If he only has 51 Republicans, he'll have to corral his conference and nine or 10 Democratic votes each week to advance legislation. And that need for bipartisanship is sure to put stresses on his party's internal dynamics.
Conference Vice Chairman Roy Blunt, who has served in GOP leadership on both sides of the Rotunda, said the party would face a test of whether it's ready to govern.
"There are some things like the budget that 51 Republicans in the Senate would have to vote for," the Missouri Republican said. "That [and] how we use our committees would be two of the big tests of whether we are ready to be a governing party or not, and I think it's something we ought to be thinking about just in case the majority does happen."
Republicans could try to nullify the health care law through budget reconciliation rather than by threatening another government shutdown, for example. But drafting a budget that gets 51 votes would be the toughest challenge — especially if McConnell doesn't have a vote to spare.
Blunt is one of many Republicans contrasting how McConnell would run the Senate with the current Democratic rule under Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
"No. 1, I hope we've learned the lessons of what happens when you don't do the business the right way," he said. "Second, the times that Republicans did lead the House and Senate, there was a budget and the appropriations bills generally came to the floor one at a time, and all came to the floor in some form to be debated and amended."
That could help Republicans attract Democratic votes to advance legislation, although it won't necessarily close the sharp split over tactics between McConnell and Cruz and others in the GOP base.
Operating in the minority, Republicans fractured over the tactic championed by Cruz of tying the funding of the government to defunding Obamacare. McConnell, notably, cut the deal to reopen the government.
"The tactical choices you make can actually help your chances or hurt your chances. Shutting down the government to defund Obamacare was a tactical mistake. We've overcome that," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Cruz later feuded with McConnell, as the Texas Republican forced his fellow GOP senators to walk the plank on the debt limit.
Cruz senior communications adviser and speechwriter Amanda Carpenter said in a recent interview with CQ Roll Call that she didn't envision her boss changing course.
"He's said before, 'I don't trust Republicans, I don't trust Democrats.' He's still going try to do the things he set out to do. The goal of being in the Senate isn't just to be the guy with the most people on your team. It’s to fix it," Carpenter said.
Other senior Republicans acknowledged the balancing act McConnell would face. The challenge would be to balance the desires of the conservative base with trying to operate a functional chamber.
"We won't have 60," noted Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who is in line to be Armed Services chairman in a GOP-led Senate. "One of the things I know for a fact because I've got the commitment for Sen. McConnell is that we will take up bills in the regular order, and we will do as we did for years."
The party also has to focus on what's achievable, suggested Republican Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota.
“You can’t set unrealistic expectations," Thune said, adding that it's something the party has been guilty of previously. "You have to define your reality, and the reality will be, even if we win the majority, is that we will be working with a Democratic president for the next couple of years who has a veto pen."
In a recent interview with The New York Times , McConnell opened the door to reversing November's "nuclear" rules change, though that would be a postelection debate. "The Senate can be returned to the place of great debates, contentious debates, but where you can still get outcomes on things where you have at least 60 senators," McConnell said.
"I definitely think that there is support for what I would consider to be regular order, which is moving to approps bills," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. "When we are to assume that [majority], we are going to have some different faces, different folks. So, you take every session as it comes."
Thune conceded that keeping the conference unified would be a challenge and there could be more disputes like the one over defunding Obamacare. But he said that having the majority is a "very different scenario."
"In the minority you are reacting all the time, and in most cases you are trying to put up a defense against what the other side is trying to do. But when you are calling the plays and setting the agenda, I think there is more of a, I hope, more of a buy-in to what the goals are. If we have gotten the buy-in and gotten everybody invested, taking ownership of what we want to achieve, then I think it gets easier to get people together, but we will see.”