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So, Republicans Took the Senate. What Now?

In yesterday’s election, Republicans gained control of the Senate (securing at least 52 seats—and possibly two more). So, for the final two years of Barack Obama’s presidency, the U.S. government is firmly divided, with Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress. What does this mean for American politics?

Two days after the 2010 mid-term election (in which the power in Congress swayed overwhelmingly toward the Republicans), Jonathan Rauch made a provocative statement: “divided we thrive.”

When government is unified, he suggests, “its partisans, with no stake in whether anything gets done in Washington, treat the government as if it were under control of an invading army.” Even though Republicans have had control of the House for that last two years, this sounds remarkably similar to Washington politics lately—think of the government shutdown last fall, for example.

On the other hand, when government is divided, Rauch posits that:

Both parties, responsible for governing, have a stake in success. Forced to negotiate and compromise, they drag policy toward the center, allowing moderates to feel represented instead of ignored. Most important, the country itself becomes more governable and meaningful laws stand a likelier chance of passage, because neither side can easily blame the other for whatever is wrong and because any major legislation needs support from both parties to pass.

[Divided government] is not, by a long shot, smooth and harmonious. It is contentious and stressful. But divided government, in today’s world of ideologically polarized parties, is the only way of attaining sustainable bipartisanship.

Perhaps this is what the next two years could look like (I try to be an optimist), but it will only be possible if both the President and leaders in Congress become less confrontational and more willing to compromise.

According to White House correspondents, President Obama plans to meet with Congressional leaders in the coming days to discuss ways that they can work together during the remainder of his term. This is good news, but it has to be more than just a publicity stunt. The President must actually be willing to compromise on policies that will benefit the American people.

[pq]Let’s hope Republicans wield their newfound power for the common good, rather than political show.[/pq]

In Congress, there is already talk of the “battle for the soul of the GOP.” There is a sect of the Republican Party that could make bipartisanship next to impossible. In an interview a few days before the election, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) “made it clear he would push hard for a Republican-led Senate to be as conservative and confron­tational as the Republican-led House.” This is troubling, to say the least.

Fortunately, other Republicans (including the leadership) seem to have more pragmatic perspectives. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said that his party ought to find “real, achievable goals that are simple, that we can define for the American people… work with the president, [and] get those things done….”

Take the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as a case study. One option is to be blunt and antagonistic:

Republicans should “pursue every means possible to repeal Obamacare,” Cruz said, including forcing a vote through parliamentary procedures that would get around a possible filibuster by Democrats. If that leads to a veto by Obama, Cruz said, Republicans should then vote on provisions of the health law “one at a time.”

You will certainly fire up the base by repealing Obamacare, but what good will it do? President Obama is not going to repeal a piece of legislation that is central to his legacy. On top of that, simply repealing the ACA will do little to help the average person. The law has been implemented, and millions of people have bought insurance through its exchanges. Repealing the law, without replacing it, doesn’t really solve the problem—it’s more of a political stunt.

Rather, Republicans should suggest common sense, conservative reforms that will actually improve the system in tangible ways. Put them on the President’s desk, and trust he cares more about the American people than his own legacy.

Republicans are celebrating after a convincing victory last night. But what will it mean for everyday people? During this period of divided government, let’s hope they wield their newfound power for the common good, rather than political show.