Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., campaigns in eastern Kentucky Aug. 7. McConnell is locked in a tight race against Democratic challenger, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON — US Republican lawmakers and insiders are banking that a GOP takeover of the Senate would break the chamber’s years-long deadlock. But the party must first win several key races.
For all of the Obama presidency, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has been the chamber’s majority leader. That means Reid sets the agenda, deciding which pieces of legislation get to the floor — and when — and which amendments will get a vote. GOP senators have howled over what they see as Reid’s unfair practice of blocking their amendments.
Their collective response has been to use the chamber’s rules, designed to protect the minority, to prevent even must-pass bills from getting an up-or-down vote. The ongoing flap nearly sank last year’s Pentagon policy bill, and has prevented most annual department-specific spending bills from getting a vote since 2009.
Most recently, Republicans led the way in killing a nearly $4 billion emergency spending bill that would have provided funds for items both parties support, including speeding deportations of immigrants along the US-Mexico border and fighting wildfires in the western United States.
But, say GOP senators and sources, just wait until January. The procedural barriers would come down with a GOP takeover — at least for the Pentagon authorization and appropriations bills.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., is so optimistic that he believes “big things” would occur if his party wins control of the Senate. With the Grand Old Party controlling both chambers — even with a likely tiny majority in the Senate — Corker sees an opening for lawmakers and the Obama White House to attempt another sequester-killing fiscal deal.
“If we were fortunate to … be in the majority, I think that’s when big things happen for our country because both sides own the solution,” Corker said prior to the start of Congress’ August break. “I really hold out hope that if we win the majority … we’ll have the opportunity and the environment will be right for a big solution to occur.”
Corker and other Republicans say if their party controls both chambers next year, it should force Democrats and President Barack Obama to adhere to more GOP demands in negotiations over legislation.
“Republicans, even with a small majority, are better for defense,” said one defense lobbyist with ties to Republicans. “It will be easier to move the defense bills and get them to the president for his signature.”
The defense lobbyist said Reid’s practice of leaving both defense bills off the floor agenda until very late in each calendar year “would be much less likely to happen under Republicans.
“And I don’t think Democrats, as the minority, would be as willing to hold up the defense bills,” the lobbyist said.
But for the GOP optimism to even have a chance to materialize, the party needs to get to 51 Senate seats. It has 45.
“There are three ‘gimmies’ for the Republicans: South Dakota, Montana and West Virginia,” said the defense lobbyist, who closely tracks races across the country. “There are 11 seats left. Lately, more and more are trending toward Republicans.”
Real Clear Politics, an independent firm that tracks political races, lists nine Senate races in its “toss up” category: Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, and North Carolina. New Hampshire is in the “leaning Dem” column. Pollsters and pundits are closely monitoring the Kentucky and Louisiana races.
In the former, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell holds a slim lead over Kentucky’s Democratic secretary of state, Alison Grimes. A Public Policy Polling survey conducted this month showed McConnell up by 5 points; Real Clear Politics averaged that and four other polls, finding McConnell up by 3 points.
Should McConnell’s decades-long Senate run end, experts said Republicans would need to pick off a state such as Michigan, which is now represented by a Democrat, to take the Senate.
In Louisiana, the race is even tighter. A CBS News/New York Times/YouGov poll conducted in July has incumbent Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu trailing her GOP rival, Rep. Bill Cassidy, by 1 point; but a Rasmussen Reports poll puts her up 3 points. A Real Clear Politics average of those two polls, and two others, gives the challenger a razor-thin lead of 1 point.
Of the nine “toss up” races, seven of those seats are held by a Democrat. But, according to numerous polls, the national mood is anti-Democrat.
“An average of 42 percent of Americans identify as Democrats or say they are independent but lean to the Democratic Party. Slightly fewer, 40 percent, are Republicans or Republican leaners,” Gallup wrote in a summary of a July 31 poll.
“That narrow two-percentage-point Democratic edge is closer to what Gallup measured in the third quarter of strong Republican midterm [election] years such as 1994, 2002 and 2010 than in the strong Democratic years of 1998 and 2006,” Gallup said.
Loren Thompson, Lexington Institute COO and a consultant to US defense firms, said the sector should avoid betting on a Republican-controlled Senate.
“Rumors of a GOP takeover in the Senate are simply that,” Thompson said. “The economy is creating 200,000 jobs per month, Obama isn’t on the ballot, and Republicans are a threat to every voter who receives an entitlement.”
For the defense sector, Thompson said the focus — meaning campaign contributions — should continue to flow into the coffers of incumbents most likely to hold top positions on the four defense committees.
“The defense industry knows that its contributions to candidates aren’t going to drive the outcome of elections, so all it is really buying is goodwill,” Thompson said.
“Legislators who have accumulated enough seniority to reach leadership posts on those committees seldom get unseated in elections, as the tea party is learning to its chagrin,” he said. “So they are the safest bet.”