Buoyed by a favorable battlefield, Republicans have held on to their Senate majority.
The enthusiasm that drove Democrats to take the House wasn’t enough to overcome the party’s disadvantage in the Senate map, with 10 Senate Democrats running for reelection in states that Donald Trump won in 2016.
Democrats taking the House sets up two years of a divided Congress. It ensures President Trump will be able to confirm dozens more federal judges to the bench in the next few years, but breaks up two years of Republicans’ iron grip on power in Washington. Democrats can finally start breathing easier that Obamacare repeal is in the rearview mirror.
If history is any guide, the next two years could see extreme gridlock on Capitol Hill, with even routine spending bills becoming a vicious fight between the two chambers.
Senate Republicans, holding on to the power, will focus on what they’ve been doing for the past few months: confirming as many federal judges as possible.
Judges are Senate Republicans’ first, second, and third priority
Putting conservative judges on the federal bench has been a priority for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell since day one of the Trump presidency, and that is only going to accelerate with little else to distract the Senate for the next two years.
The Senate has already confirmed a record number of Trump-appointed judges, and McConnell’s mission for the next two years will be to grow that number as much as possible.
The judiciary will “for sure” be the first, second, and third priority for Senate Republicans, one K Street lobbyist told me.
Senate Democrats have thus far been reluctant to resort to outright obstruction to block Trump’s nominees, cutting several deals in 2018 in exchange for more time for their vulnerable incumbents to be back in their states. But with the election over and Democrats still in the minority, pressure will grow from the left for Democrats to do a lot more to slow McConnell’s filling of the judiciary with conservatives.
Republicans have proven willing to erode cherished Senate norms, like “blue slips,” to advance their judges. With those norms have gone any hopes of slowing McConnell’s agenda. Even when the Senate adjourned this fall to let senators go home to campaign for the midterms, Republicans kept nominees moving through the committee process. Democrats simply have few options to permanently block judicial nominees while the GOP holds the gavel.
Beyond the steady parade of district and appellate judges, Trump can also rest easy knowing a Republican majority awaits if he has another Supreme Court vacancy to fill. After McConnell succeeded in pushing through Brett Kavanaugh, it seems unlikely there’s anything that Democrats or the public could do to stop Trump from putting another justice on the high court.
Liberal Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer are 85 and 80, respectively. While both appear to be in good health for their age, the Republican Senate victory on Election Day would give Trump free rein to appoint a new justice who would serve for decades, if the opportunity arises in the next two years.
Congress might not do much more than keep the government running
Since the 2016 election, Republicans have already tried (and failed) to repeal Obamacare, and they succeeded in passing a big corporate tax cut. In terms of legislative priorities, the GOP doesn’t have much else to do, and there seems to be little overlap with House Democrats.
House Democrats are ready to embark on an agenda focused on rigorous oversight of the Trump administration, passing a smattering of good-governance and anti-corruption bills, and trying to build off their electoral advantage on health care by passing bills to stabilize Obamacare and possibly set up a Medicare buy-in.
None of that is likely to appeal to Senate Republicans. But there aren’t very many obvious alternatives for compromise.
The best candidate might be a new budget deal. The harsh “sequestration” budget caps would return in fiscal year 2020 without congressional action. There is a deal to be made between Republicans who want to boost federal spending on defense — and maybe even Trump’s “space force” — and Democrats who want more money for domestic priorities.
“This assumes no one cares about the deficit anymore,” another Washington lobbyist told me. “Maybe Trump and/or Senate Rs will decide to care again if they have House Ds as foils.”
Trump is also always preaching the dream of a big infrastructure plan, but that train never seems to leave the station. Coming out of 2017 and heading into 2018, McConnell and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer both talked up the possibility of some kind of bipartisan compromise on a plan to rebuild road and bridges. Nothing materialized.
Senate Democrats and Republicans already tried to reach a compromise on stabilizing Obamacare, but it fell apart earlier this year in a partisan spat ostensibly about abortion. Repealing the health care law is off the table, given the Democratic takeover in the House. Some Democrats privately hold out a sliver of hope that Republicans might be humbled enough by the Democratic win in the House to budge. But they aren’t holding their breath.
“Just because something happens in the House, it could get stuck with Republicans still in charge of the Senate,” one House Democratic aide told me. “It depends on what kind of mood the Republicans are in.”
On taxes or the environment or immigration, the possibilities for any bipartisan deal are small, especially as Trump gears up for his own reelection and half a dozen Democrats in the Senate try to position themselves for their own run at the White House in 2020.
How Senate Republicans won: they had a huge built-in advantage
In the 2018 Senate elections, Democrats had serious advantages — an unpopular President Trump, the historic trend of voters punishing the party in power — and one huge obstacle that ultimately proved too much for them to overcome: 10 Senate Democrats were running for reelection in states that Trump won in the 2016 presidential election.
That hurdle is the big reason why — though the current Senate has 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats, and therefore, Democrats would have needed to flip only two seats to reclaim control of the chamber — the minority still fell short.
For the Senate, the 2018 midterms were a collision of two opposing forces: incumbent senators hoping to benefit from the national anti-Trump mood but campaigning in states where Trump remains relatively popular. On Election Day, these states’ conservative natures overrode the backlash toward the president, though Trump’s deep unpopularity made a few of these races closer for Republicans than they otherwise probably would have been. Close, but not enough for the upsets Democrats needed to win the Senate.
If there is any consolation for Democrats, it’s that the 2020 Senate map should be more favorable for the minority, and the electorate in presidential elections usually leans more toward the Democrats than voters in midterm elections.
As of now, 20 Republican-held seats are on the ballot in 2020 — including in states like Colorado, Arizona, Maine, Iowa, North Carolina, and Georgia, where Democrats should at least have a plausible chance of winning the seat away from Republicans. However, they will also have to defend 11 seats, including in deep-red Alabama, where Sen. Doug Jones is up for his first reelection after his shocking 2017 win.
In the meantime, the GOP’s continued hold of the Senate likely means two things: More Trump judges will be confirmed, and not much else will get done in Congress.