- The Washington Times - Monday, November 1, 2010

Republicans could win Tuesday by losing their bid to take over control of the Senate.

With the party poised to gain control of the House, but facing a tougher challenge to win the Senate, some Washington Republicans privately say that such a scenario - with the 2012 presidential and congressional elections in mind - would be politically advantageous for the party two years hence.

Many see Republican command of the Senate by anything less than a 60-seat majority - a virtual impossibility for either party this election - along with GOP control of the House and a Democratic White House as a recipe for legislative gridlock. And that, some Republicans say, could spell disaster for the party in 2012, as an electorate frustrated by inaction in Washington would punish Republicans at the polls.

“It does make sense,” said Darrell M. West, a political analyst with the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution. “If Republicans controlled both the House and Senate, then voters are going to expect action. If they don’t have full control of Congress, voters will be more willing to give them a pass if nothing much changes over the next two years.”

A split Congress would present Republicans with an “beautiful scenario” heading into the 2012 elections, an influential Washington GOP strategist said.

“Everyone in town wants the House, they don’t want the Senate - they want to come close,” said the strategist, who declined to have his name used. “If you have 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats, that would be a terrible situation because Obama can then run against Congress, [saying,] ‘They’re not getting it done.’ “

Because major votes in the Senate routinely need 60 votes to break a minority filibuster, a smaller majority often leaves the party in power handcuffed. So even if Democrats - who currently have 59 members in their caucus - lose seats but retain control, they will need significant Republican cooperation to advance their agenda.

With a Senate gripped with gridlock under a slim Democratic majority, Republicans could portray Democrats and the Obama administration as ineffectual and unworthy to lead.

“It matters in terms of public perception because voters are not in tune to majority versus ‘supermajority’ requirements,” Mr. West said. “They think if somebody has majority status, that then they should be able to pass legislation. It’s one of the reasons voters turned on Democrats this year, and it could be an equally big problem for Republicans over the next two years if they control both the House and the Senate.”

Some party insiders have pointed to a historical precedent - the huge GOP gains in the 1946 congressional midterms after World War II that gave the party control of both chambers on Capitol Hill. Two years later, President Truman scored a historic upset in the presidential election by running against what he called a “do-nothing” Republican Congress.

A Senate equally divided between the two parties would present the best-case scenario, the GOP strategist said.

“If we had a 50-50 Senate and [Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.] is the [tiebreaking] vote, and the tie vote is always the [Democratic] way, then we could go ‘boo’ and really make a lot of hay with that … and blame the Democratic majority for inaction,” he said.

A split Congress also could benefit House Republican leaders. Knowing that their key bills likely would die in a Democrat-controlled Senate, Republicans would be free to pursue an aggressive legislative agenda for the purpose of making political statements. House Republicans running for re-election in 2012 then could peg Senate Democrats as “obstructionists.”

Not everyone agrees that Republicans would be better off failing to win the Senate.

“It’s just plain old spin - they’re trying to put the best face on the most likely outcome,” said Bill Schneider, a political analyst with Third Way, a liberal-leaning think tank.

The public considers whichever party controls the House to essentially control Congress, he said. So Republicans would get the blame for congressional gridlock stemming from a GOP House and a Democratic Senate.

Republicans would be able to control some key Senate duties with even a slim majority, including judicial nominations and other appointments, and with Senate control comes committee chairmanships, a powerful bully pulpit.

“I’m not a big fan of the ‘winning by losing’ theory,” said John C. Fortier of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning Washington think tank. “I think it’s always better to get as much as you can.”

A Republican-controlled House and Senate would allow the party to better publicize its agenda, he said, and with GOP chairmen heading congressional oversight committees, the party could launch embarrassing inquiries and investigations into the Obama administration.

But Republicans, if they controlled both chambers, would have to resist the urge to overplay their hand as they did in the 1995 shutdown of the federal government. The party, still brimming with enthusiasm after taking control of Congress earlier in the year for the first time in decades, forced a budget showdown with the Clinton White House. The move backfired, sparking a government shutdown that the public blamed on congressional Republicans.

“If you think that’s a good thing, then you should have the Senate,” Mr. Fortier said. “If you think it’ll backfire again, then maybe it’s better to only have part of the Congress.”