- - Monday, August 11, 2014

Republicans have a better-than-even chance to win control of the Senate this year. The GOP will certainly gain seats. The result will be a deeply divided government with lots of Republicans on Capitol Hill and a Democrat in the White House. Surprisingly, a break in gridlock might be on the way.

Insiders can barely remember when consensus was the rule rather than the exception in Congress. There was such a time, though, and divided government actually cleared the way to compromise during that period. The last two years of the Obama administration could produce a return to that bygone era.

Republicans are likely to gain seats — not just in the Senate, but also in the House. That might appear to be a prescription for more do-nothingness. Still, the end of second-term presidencies haven’t been as fallow as you might suspect.

Ronald Reagan signed the most sweeping overhaul of the income tax ever toward the end of his second term — with a divided Congress. Bill Clinton cut taxes and spending and approved a major rewrite of banking laws during the same part of his second term — with Republicans in charge of both chambers.

Presidents tend to focus on their legacies the closer they get to the exit. President Obama’s polls are clearly showing that going it alone without Congress hasn’t worked for him. If he wants to leave office on a high note — and that would mean getting something done for a change — he will have little choice but to work with, instead of against, lawmakers on the Hill.

Expectations for accomplishment are low after years of relative inactivity. Republicans also aren’t expected to do much. So if they do, what a boon.

Washington Analysis LLC, a veteran observer of Washington’s ways, put the situation succinctly: “First, since Obama has virtually no legislative accomplishments during his second term, he might be more willing to work with the GOP to further his legacy. Second, there’s reason to believe that Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), assuming he remains Speaker, and incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), assuming he wins his race, may also be willing to work with the President, as GOP leaders have few accomplishments of their own over the last two years.”

In addition, both Messrs. McConnell and Boehner will have survived challenges from their political right and will probably be emboldened to find common cause — even with a liberal president — in the interest of getting something done. For his part, the president would be liberated to move to his political right, thanks to his lame-duck status.

Indeed, if the electorate demonstrates its displeasure by tossing out the Democratic majority in the Senate, both sides will have reasons to change their ways.

To be sure, hoped-for progress in legislation has been unrequited for years, but Congress does act when it must. Before the August recess, for example, it prevented the highway trust fund from going bust (at least temporarily) and threw money at the horrific Department of Veterans Affairs waiting-line scandal before it got even worse.

Officials in Washington face an increasing number of such must-do tasks. Immigration is both a real and a political problem, especially with tens of thousands of children from Central America still in limbo after crossing the southern border. Heading into a presidential election in 2016, lawmakers of both parties are motivated to act.

In addition, the creeping concern about the cost of entitlements is about to become acute. Funding for Social Security Disability Insurance, for instance, is set to run out by 2016. If no action is taken, its recipients could see a 20 percent cut in benefits. No one wants millions of disabled people to shoulder such a shortfall.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has all but shut down the Senate this year to protect from controversial votes the larger-than-usual Democratic class facing re-election. Starting next year, Democrats aren’t as vulnerable. That’s another reason to think more can happen.

Foreign policy is particularly fertile ground. Deteriorating circumstances in the Middle East, Russia and Afghanistan might force U.S. action and solidarity. Trade is an opportunity that free-trade Republicans and internationalist Democrats might embrace together. The agreement closest to the finish line is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact that the United States is negotiating with 11 countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

It’s always safe to predict failure in Congress because the system is biased toward stopping rather than facilitating legislation. Compared with recent history, though, next year could produce a bumper crop of new laws.

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