Last updateFri, 02 Jan 2015 5pm

After the US midterms: a stormy political landscape?

All but a handful of political pundits say there’s at least an 80-percent probability that the Republicans will win back the Senate in the U.S. midterm elections on Tuesday, November 4.

Although some races may go down to the wire and the unexpected could still happen, much of the pre-election debate has focused on how the new-look Congress will play out in the final two years of President Barack Obama’s presidency.

Some observers say having control of both houses of Congress will deincentivize Republicans to do much that might reactivate the economy and thus give the Democrats any advantage going into the 2016 presidential race.

Others say making life hard for Hillary Clinton (the frontrunner for the Democrats) to gain traction will top their agenda. Rather than wheel and deal and get things done, the Republicans may simply look to draw up legislation that Obama will be forced to veto and appear the obstructionist, thus transferring to him the epitaph that has been attached to the GOP for so long.

But this is a double-edged sword. Republicans will be aware they have to tread cautiously and come up with a constructive agenda so as not to appear dysfunctional (and unelectable) in the lead up to 2016.   Nonetheless, the GOP is unlikely to hold back legislation on “pet projects” that many Democrats find so repugnant – such as placing greater restrictions on the Environmental Protection Agency, stripping federal funds from Planned Parenthood, Obamacare defunding, etcetera.

Some analysts, however, suggest that Republicans may be wise to force Obama’s hand with a more nuanced strategy.
Immigration is a case in point. With the Latino vote in 2016 in mind, some beltway observers say it might be in the Republicans’ interests to press forward with any kind of bill, however watered down it may be. They know Obama won’t approve a law that doesn’t include a path to citizenship guarantees, but forcing him into corner regarding other aspects of immigration law could turn out to be an advantageous strategy.       

Recent history, of course, suggests getting some House Republicans to agree to any kind of comprehensive immigration bill is nigh on impossible.

The likely scenario is that immigration will be put on hold until 2017.  Obama has now cooled on his idea, announced in June, that he could “go it alone” and enact executive actions to defer deportations and expand work opportunities for undocumented workers.

That’s not to say Obama won’t be pressed hard in some quarters to bypass Congress and create a wider legacy through executive actions and adjusting federal regulations in areas dear to the hearts of many Democrats. In his final years he will be encouraged to take a lead on a slew of environmental issues.

These are likely to include applying new greenhouse gas emissions standards, placing greater oversight on fracking, introducing new efficiency standards for appliances and incentivizing the use of biofuels, among others regulations.  

While enacting such measures will require a degree of boldness that many observers say he has lacked during his presidency, Obama will have no qualms about vetoing Republican-sponsored bills that are likely to find their way on to his desk in the next two years.  

Legislation to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy is one – and one that the president will summarily reject. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to pursue “pro-life” policies should Republicans win a majority next week.   In January, the Republican controlled House of Representatives passed measures that significantly reduced the number of health insurance plans that cover abortions (the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act”).  The bill went nowhere in the Senate, but could be revived even though Obama has vowed to veto it.  

It’s also a given that the Republican assault on Obama’s landmark Affordable Care Act will not let up during the last quarter of the president’s incumbency.

The GOP will not get the two-thirds majority required to override a presidential veto and repeal “Obamacare,” analysts agree, although Republicans are likely to continue efforts to defund the federal health care plan that, after a wobbly start, has begun to snowball, with enrollment increasing beyond initialexpectations and costs coming in lower than predicted.  A “show vote” on the repeal of Obamacare is a possibility, but Republicans recognize that any chance of repealing the law can only come when a GOP president sits in the Oval Office.  

On the positive side, Obama may be grateful to a Republican-controlled Congress to push through his trade agenda, specifically “fast-track” authority to cement two agreements, one with the European Union and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that includes Mexico, Japan, Australia and nine other nations.  Some Democrats are stalling at giving their support to fast-track authority, fearing it could lead to deals that damage jobs and industry.

Political observers have also highlighted other areas where agreements between the executive and legislative branches might be found over the next two years. Among these are corporate-tax reform, deficit reduction, federal highway funding and policy in Iraq and Syria.

All 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 36 seats in the Senate (out of 100) are up for grabs on November 4.  In addition, elections for governor will be held in 38 states and territories, as well as 46 state legislatures (excluding Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia).