After four years of gridlock under a divided Capitol, a restless electorate has handed Republicans full control of the legislative branch, setting up a tense final two years for the Obama presidency. Despite polls showing the campaign hanging on a knife edge throughout the year, a November wave ultimately swept the GOP to victory across the country, with control of the United States Senate as the chief prize. While the voters have plainly spoken, key questions remain for the 114th Congress: What will Republicans do with their newfound power? Can GOP leaders produce bills that will pass their respective chambers? And if so, how will President Obama respond?

While Republicans enjoyed distinct structural advantages in their quest to regain the Senate majority, the GOP was haunted by missed opportunities and self-inflicted wounds during the past two election cycles. The emerging media narrative suggested Republicans could win the six seats they needed, but the competitiveness of targeted Democrat incumbents demonstrated that there was no broader GOP tide at work. On the eve of the election, conventional wisdom held that Republicans would win five to seven Senate seats, net a handful of House seats, and inevitably lose several governors’ mansions.

Instead, the GOP scored major pickups from coast to coast, up and down the ticket. Republicans ultimately picked up nine seats in the Senate and 13 in the House, along with 11 state legislative chambers and two additional governorships, leaving the party with unified control of state government in nearly half the country. To put these numbers in perspective, the GOP has not controlled so many House seats or state legislatures since the 1920s.

The midterm election clearly represents a rebuke of President Obama and his party, yet the results don’t necessarily reflect support of any particular GOP policy prescriptions. Republican challengers successfully tied their incumbent opponents to an unpopular president and his signature health care law, but they had little in the way of a cohesive message beyond the desire to provide a check on the Obama administration. But with a challenging 2016 political map and a looming bout with the Hillary Clinton juggernaut, GOP leaders realize they must present a compelling policy vision or risk their own backlash two years hence.

To that end, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) penned a joint op-e in The Wall Street Journal laying out their priorities, with a concerted emphasis on jobs and the economy. They noted that many House-passed bipartisan bills languished in the Senate during the past two years, and pledged a return to regular order whereby these measures will come up for debate (and ultimately votes) in the upper chamber. Among the low-hanging legislative fruit they intend to go after early in the session: approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, Affordable Care Act (ACA) mandate exemptions for hiring veterans and restoration of the 40-hour workweek. More broadly, they speak of repealing the ACA, making the tax code more competitive, curtailing excessive regulations and taming a federal bureaucracy run amok while confronting the national debt.

Although Republicans now boast a nine-seat majority in the Senate, they still fall short of the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster and move legislation. Look for Sen. McConnell to court red state moderates such as Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.); newly chastened purple-staters such as Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.); and self-styled independents such as Angus King (I-Maine) to cobble together the necessary support. And even if they do muster the Senate supermajority needed to send most legislation to the Oval Office, President Obama can always choose to veto. The only question is whether he dares to make good on the threat in the face of
popular support.

While the new GOP majority may not have the ability to unilaterally pass its favored bills, it nonetheless maintains significant power to rein in the executive branch. The aggressive oversight monopolized by the House during the past four years will now make its way to the Senate, with able inquisitors such as Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) vowing to hold  the administration accountable for its actions. Sen. McConnell has pledged to personally stop the ongoing overreach of the Environmental Protection Agency as it seeks to regulate everything from glorified puddles to carbon emissions. And incoming Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has railed against the increasingly emboldened National Labor Relations Board.

With Republicans holding sway on both sides of Capitol Hill, the onus will be on the president to seek areas of compromise. A bigger House cushion gives Speaker Boehner more leeway within his conference to produce or accept bills that stand a chance in the Senate.

Provided the leaders maintain their current level of coordination, they may be able to gradually overcome the gridlock that has defined Washington, D.C., since 2010, or at least force the president to play the obstructer role. Whether he chooses an approach of confrontation or conciliation, the GOP wave of 2014 has rendered President Obama the lamest of ducks.


Liam Donovan is director of legislative affairs for Associated Builders and Contractors. For more information, email donovan@abc.org.