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Why congressional races matter, regardless of who wins the White House

November 2, 2016 at 6:40 PM EST
Regardless of who wins the presidential election on Nov. 8, the party that controls the balance of power in the U.S. House and Senate will play a crucial role in determining what gets done. Judy Woodruff speaks with Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Gerald Seib of The Wall Street Journal.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: No matter who wins next week’s presidential election, the party that controls the balance of power in the U.S. House and Senate will play a critical role in determining what gets done. Important issues such as health care, immigration, trade and the makeup of the federal courts will all be affected.

We explore that now with Gerald Seib, the Washington bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. And Norman Ornstein, he’s a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

And we welcome both of you back to the program.

So, Jerry, I’m going to start with you. There are, what, six or seven Senate seats that are literally up for grabs right now. Where do those races — how do they look like?

GERALD SEIB, The Wall Street Journal: It’s interesting, because a couple of weeks ago, the Democrats got fairly confident they were pulling away and were going to have the margin.

And then several of those races have narrowed down in the last couple of weeks, sort of like the presidential race, and not by coincidence. So if the Democrats can hang on in Nevada, where Harry Reid is retiring, which is a little iffy, and if they pick up a seat in Illinois, which seems likely, then they’re going to have to find three or four seats in Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

In each of those states, the Republicans trying to hang on have done a little better than Donald Trump in those states, which is why Republicans have some hope that they can hang on. To me, the most interesting one in the last few days has been Wisconsin, which looked as it was kind of moving away from Ron Johnson, the Republican incumbent. Now it’s tightening up

And all of a sudden, there’s money pouring in from both parties into Wisconsin.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We could see changes. But the point is, it’s hanging in the balance, Norm. We don’t know.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: It’s hanging in the balance.

Democrats, if Hillary Clinton wins the White House, need four seats. If they win four, it’s a tied Senate, and the vice president casts the tie-breaking vote. One caveat here is that if that does happen and there’s a tie, the seat in Virginia, which would be vacated by the then-vice president-elect Tim Kaine, would be filled by Governor Terry McAuliffe. It would be a Democrat, but only for a year.

Then there’s a special election. And their majority would be in jeopardy if that happened.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we’re off to the races again.

Well, we’re here to talk about, Jerry, about what difference does it make whether — let’s just start out assuming Hillary Clinton wins. And we will talk in a minute about Donald Trump. But if she wins and she doesn’t have a Senate in — her party with the majority of Democrats, what does that mean for what she wants to do?

GERALD SEIB: Well, you know, at some level, if somebody is in control of the Senate by 51 to 49 seats, nobody is in control of the Senate. You don’t have a working majority.

But it really does matter who has the 51, because you form the committees. You name the committee chairmen. You set the agenda. You decide what gets considered and what doesn’t.

And however that mix works out, I think one of the things that has happened in the last few weeks that would be very problematic for a President Hillary Clinton is that many of these Republicans who do hang on are going to hang on because they have gone to the voters and said, vote for me because I will be a check on Hillary Clinton.

So, they’re going to come to town and their mandate is going to be block the new President Clinton, not to work with the new President Clinton. And whatever the math is, I think that’s a serious problem for her.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Norm, what are the initiatives that could go either way depending on what the Senate does if she is president?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, let’s talk about the most important element and why winning the Senate is absolutely crucial for her for governing, and that is the Senate’s unique power to advise and consent on executive and judicial nominations.

That’s where having the 50 or 51 matters the most, because if — and getting to Jerry’s point, if there’s a Republican majority, the Republicans, from Mitch McConnell, the leader, on down have made clear that they’re not going to confirm her judges. And we have now had a number of senators, including Richard Burr in North Carolina, who is one of the ones who seats is very much in jeopardy, and Ted Cruz and others say, we won’t confirm a Supreme Court justice for four years, for the entire term.

And they can keep a vote from even taking place. Now, if the Democrats have the majority, even by a narrow margin, all the judgeships below the Supreme Court level can be confirmed without a filibuster with 50 votes, and you could change the rules, if need be, to deal with the Supreme Court.

Other than that, we’re not going to see much legislation going through, Judy, because even if they have the Senate, they don’t have the House. But having that initiative, having the ability to frame an agenda, to bring up an infrastructure bill, which would be a top priority, to bring up a fix to the health care plan, that’s critical if Hillary Clinton is going to make any progress through the normal process, the regular order, the legislative process.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Jerry, what happens if — say the Democrats do eke out a majority in the Senate. What is she then able to do, if she’s elected?

GERALD SEIB: Well, you know, I think, as Norm says, the first thing is, you can get your people in place to run the government.

And that’s not a small thing. Before we even get to that stage, one of the things the Clinton team would really like is Merrick Garland, the Supreme Court nominee, to be confirmed in a lame-duck session.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Who President Obama nominated.

GERALD SEIB: Right, who President Obama has nominated, whose nomination is sitting there. They would like that out of the way, so that doesn’t take all the oxygen out of the room.

Then I think you can sort of move on to at least attempting a few basic things. And I think the number one thing on the agenda would be to try to get a bill that spends a bunch of money on infrastructure in this country that is actually a bipartisan idea.

Donald Trump has proposed spending more than Hillary Clinton on infrastructure. Business likes it. Republicans like it. Republican governors out in the country would like that infrastructure money.

Maybe there’s a path, even in this partisan environment, in this divided world we’re talking about, to get something like that done. But I agree with Norm. It’s not going to be an ambitious agenda, at least at first.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Before we quickly get to Donald Trump, I just want to say, we’re not talking so much about the House of Representatives, Norm, because we assume, given what we’re seeing out there, that it’s not going to change hands. It will remain in Republican control.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Yes. Democrats need 30 seats to win the House, and that is a steeply, steeply uphill climb.

Our expectation has been that they will pick up seats and they will reduce the Republican majority. And it might go down into the 10 seats. And that will, by the way, be an enormous challenge to Paul Ryan if he decides to try to continue as speaker, because leadership advocates, those who are loyal to him, are going to be reduced in number.

And with a smaller number, those who are antithetical to him, the Freedom Caucus from his radical right, are going to be stronger. So, that’s a challenge to him. And it’s a challenge to her if she wins the presidency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, let’s quickly, Jerry, talk about Donald Trump.

If he is elected president, we’re assuming the Senate and the House stay Republican, just because it would what they call maybe a wave election. What could he get done?

GERALD SEIB: Well, in that case, the presumption that Republicans in Congress have is that they’re going to step forward and fill a policy gap.

The Trump presidential candidate — presidential campaign has been policy-light. I think they believe the policy-making for the Republican Party would move down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, to the Congress.

And I’m not sure Donald Trump will agree with that. I think the problem becomes, there are key issues, immigration and trade being chief among them, where the Republicans in Congress are not in agreement with Donald Trump the presidential candidate. I don’t know how they resolve that.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: So, we know what — the one thing they can all agree on, which is a great big tax cut, particularly for the rich.

Republicans in Congress and Donald Trump have that in common. Almost nothing else will move very far, in part because Democrats will filibuster almost all of the initiatives. The most interesting one, though, Judy, is the health care.

You know, there’s talk of repeal and replace. They don’t have a replace plan. And if they all take the majority, it is going to be like the dog chasing the bus who catches it. What do you do then?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, either way, it looks like there are a lot of question marks about what either one can get done.

Norman Ornstein, Jerry Seib, we thank you both.

GERALD SEIB: Thank you, Judy.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Thank you.

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