Looking ahead

Can Obama and a Republican Senate Find Common Ground?

There are many potential areas for deal-making—trade, corporate tax reform, modest ACA adjustments, and more. Emphasis on ‘potential.’

11.04.14 9:50 PM ET

Facing a Republican-led Senate, President Obama soon may be hosting GOP leader Mitch McConnell at the White House, after the veteran lawmaker won a sixth six-year Senate term in Kentucky. Last year, buoyed by his 2012 reelection, Obama dismissed the notion of schmoozing with his Republican tormentors on Capitol Hill. People keep asking him, “Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?” he wisecracked at the White House Correspondents Association dinner.

Now Obama will have to spend more time than he’d like with the GOP, or else kiss goodbye to the last two years of his legislative legacy. “There are incentives, small incentives on both sides to show they can actually accomplish something,” says Elaine Kamarck, senior fellow in the Governance Studies program at the Brookings Institution. “But they’re small and not very high salience,” she says.  “There’s nothing the big middle class can jump up and down about.”

Kamarck nominates Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) and corporate tax reform. They aren’t bell-ringers but could end the gridlock to get Congress functioning again. TPA would allow Obama to conclude negotiations on a major trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It’s something Obama wants, and so does the GOP. Corporate tax reform is another area ripe for a deal. The United States has the highest corporate tax in the world at 35 percent, and the recent wave of “inversions,” with major companies moving their address overseas to avoid paying billions in taxes, has lent bipartisan urgency to the reform effort.

John Feehery, who served as communications director to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, cautions that any tax reform will be lauded by big business, but individual rates won’t be touched. “Individuals won’t get anything out of it,” he says. William Galston, a senior fellow at Brookings, takes a different view because of the players that will lead the tax-reform effort. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who was a good friend of the late Democrat Ted Kennedy, and who works well across the aisle, will chair the Senate Finance Committee. Rep. Paul Ryan, a potential presidential candidate with an eye to boosting the GOP’s populist credentials, is assuming the helm of the House Ways and Means Committee, where tax legislation originates. “That’s a team reasonable people can do business with,” says Galston.

There will be an early vote on the Keystone XL pipeline, which enough Democrats support to assure passage. Obama has been cagey about where he stands, not wanting to anger environmentalists. “We’ll see if he vetoes it,” says Feehery. “They’ll present it to him.” Lifting the tax on medical devices, imposed as part of the Affordable Care Act, is another issue that if put to a vote would prevail with the help of Democrats. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Al Franken are among those who oppose the tax because of its impact on device makers in their states.

Spending on infrastructure used to be an easy bipartisan win, and with the GOP in charge, they’ll be less paranoid about Democrats turning it into a handout to unions. Other less obvious areas of potential agreement are criminal-justice reform and voting rights. Republican Rand Paul, another likely presidential contender, is pushing the idea that nonviolent offenders, especially in drug-related crimes, should receive lesser sentences, and that once they’ve repaid their debt to society, should have their voting rights restored. Passing a new voting-rights bill after the Supreme Court gutted the historic Voting Rights Act in 2013 is “a little bit of a stretch,” says Feehery, but Republicans are “feeling the heat” for voter-suppression tactics in a number of states, and when Congress reauthorized the VRA in 2006, it passed both houses with large bipartisan margins.

Immigration reform is on the White House wish list, and Obama has boxed himself in promising executive action first by the end of summer, then after the midterms. He can’t punt again. Progressives want bold action while Obama doesn’t want to foreclose the possibility that Congress might act. One suggestion bandied about among progressives is that Obama go public with exactly what he plans to do in granting legal status to some portion of the 11 million people in the country illegally, borrowing from a bipartisan bill that passed the Senate last year with a commanding 68 votes in favor.

Obama would then give Congress an ultimatum: Act by a certain date, perhaps a hundred days into the new Congress, or he will. Admittedly it would be called a stunt, but Obama needs something dramatic to rejuvenate his leadership. Some advocates think he should go to Capitol Hill and stay there as a hands-on leader, lobbying like he was LBJ reborn until he gets action on the country’s key priorities.

More likely, the road ahead will be paved by small accomplishments as opposed to grand bargains that would rattle the rough equilibrium between the two parties as they position themselves for the presidential sweepstakes. Republicans need to rebuild their brand, which Rand Paul said quite graphically “sucks.” Feehery recalls how the GOP rebuilt its tattered image after the Clinton impeachment triggered a voter backlash that left Republicans reeling. They did it with what Feehery calls “routine governance.” They passed appropriations bills, and they went against stereotype with a “new markets” bill aimed at minority communities that “showed we weren’t toxic, we didn’t hate black people, we care about them,” and they passed a prescription-drug bill for seniors that is wildly popular today. “We restored our brand, showed we could govern, we took the temperature down,” says Feehery. “I was quoted in The New York Times saying, ‘We dared to be dull’.”

The alternate view among Republicans, says Feehery, is to let the bright lines shine; why give Obama any opportunities for bipartisan victories, on the theory that a failing president makes it harder for Democrats to argue for a third term. “McConnell’s biggest impediment is Ted Cruz,” says Feehery. “He wants to repeal Obamacare, and he wants to be confrontational.” A newly empowered McConnell should be able to stand up to Cruz. The bigger question is what House Speaker John Boehner will do. “Does he want to be remembered as someone who never got anything done?” says Galston, who points out that Boehner is one of the biggest beneficiaries of a Republican Senate. “He can tell his caucus they’re shooting with real bullets, they can pass legislation, they’re not shooting with blanks anymore.”

If Republicans want to get things done, they will find a willing partner in Obama, up to a point. Then he’s got his veto pen. He only used it twice in six years. He’ll get lots of chances in the time he has left.