After Midterm Elections, Congress Faces Likely Legislative Gridlock

No matter which party comes out on top in next week's midterm elections, getting legislation through the next Congress will be an uphill battle at best and virtually impossible at worst.

Regardless of who wins the majority next week, more pratfalls than policies may emerge out of the 112th Congress, observers warn.

"Both parties don't like to work with each other. We keep seeing that over and over," said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University professor of history and congressional expert. "It's like Lucy and Charlie Brown with the football."

As first orders of business in 2011, Republicans pledge to slash taxes and spending, cut down on government regulations, repeal portions of President Obama's health care law and end his stimulus program.

"There's nothing more urgent than stopping the tax hikes, cutting spending and repealing Obamacare," Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Republican leader John Boehner, told

Reportedly, the GOP wants to slash $100 billion right away, though a pledge produced in the summer does not offer a timeline for cuts.

If Democrats retain the majority, they say they want to overhaul the immigration system, pass climate change legislation and spend more money to turn the economy around and reduce the deficit.

According to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office, the early focus of legislation will be to create "good-paying manufacturing jobs" by using the "Make it in America" agenda, which calls for ending outsourcing.

Spokesman Drew Hammill added that tax relief for working families and small businesses is a priority agenda item as is "reducing the deficit and eliminating duplication, fraud and abuse in federal spending."

Reducing spending also gets harder when voters say they want cuts but then refuse to allow lawmakers to chip away at the most costly areas of the budget, including Social Security and Medicare.

According to a midterm election survey released by The Hill newspaper on Thursday, a majority of Republican and independent voters in 10 House battleground districts say Congress should cut spending, even if it means fewer projects and earmarks, but similar majorities in both groups also say they are unwilling to accept cuts to Social Security, Medicaid, defense and homeland-security spending.

The same poll found that only 28 percent of Democrats want their lawmakers to cut spending.

And regardless of which side wins, both parties face narrow paths to legislative victories.

If Republicans capture one or both chambers in Congress next Tuesday, they face the challenge of getting their priorities past President Obama, who wields veto power. If Democrats retain control, their majorities are all but certain to be reduced in both chambers, giving Republicans more power to block Obama's agenda and increasing the chances of gridlock on legislative proposals.

"The Congress can work on ideas that are consensus ideas," suggested Brian Darling, director of Senate relations at the Heritage Foundation. "Everybody agrees that we have problems with entitlements and something has to be done. And maybe there are incremental measures to reform these programs."

Darling told that if Republicans take over both chambers, they could use appropriation bills to legislate their way.

"They can take and bury bills in them and dare the president to veto it," he said, adding that the bills would have to be popular.

"For example, if they tried to chip away at health care, that's a popular thing," he said, noting that Obama resisted repealing a tax provision of the new law that requires small businesses to file a 1099 form every time they spend more than $600 per year for goods and services from a company.

"If they put that in the bill, there's an opportunity," he said.

Republicans could also fold their priorities into bills that Obama wants.

"They could marry Obama priorities with Republican priorities," Darling said.

Zelizer said an alternative approach would be for the GOP to focus on issues that "Democrats are going to have trouble saying no to," such as extending tax cuts for wealthy Americans.

Would-be House Speaker Boehner and Obama could try to work together on deficit reduction. For Republicans, part of it would be symbolic leading up to the '12 elections, Zelizer said. "But part of it is to see if there is enough Democrats to work on it," he added.

As for other options, Republicans in control of the House but not the Senate could skip trying to pass legislation and use Senate Democratic "obstruction" or Obama's veto pen as a means to energize the base going into the 2012 presidential election. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell reportedly has said that is an area he would consider exploiting to ensure Obama is a one-term president.

Another option, Darling said, is for a majority Democratic Senate to consider the nuclear option -- changing the Senate rules to eliminate the filibuster so bills can pass with a simple majority.

"Then they could move forward with climate change and immigration overhaul," he said.

Zelizer said he envisions the next two years as a setup for the presidential election rather than two years of buckling down on legislative programs.

"At best, what you'll see is progress on smaller issues, under-the-radar issues -- not the big priorities," he said.

A divided Washington, however, doesn't always have to be a bad thing, Darling said.

"If you look back at the Clinton years, he had to deal with Republicans the last six years," he noted. "He got a lot accomplished."