Normally the day after the midterm election in the sixth year of a president’s term, all focus shifts to the next presidential election. That will not be the case this year. With Republicans having won a majority in the Senate and with a bigger Republican majority in the House, President Barack Obama has to make a choice. What does he want to accomplish in his last two years as president? The decision is his alone. He can continue the “take it or leave it” legislative strategy he has followed his first six years in office or he can choose to work with Republicans and Democrats in the Congress to find agreements on some issues of critical importance to all Americans.
President Bill Clinton faced the very same question after the midterm election in 1994. Remember? He faced Speaker Newt Gingrich and a House filled with Republican firebrands. The Senate was led by his most likely opponent for the 1996 presidential election, Bob Dole. Still he decided to try to find common ground on specific issues. That decision resulted in the most significant legislation passed by the Republican Congress and signed by President Clinton — welfare reform.
President Obama will have to decide whether he wants to work with Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. They really aren’t so scary. Boehner was able to craft bipartisan education reform legislation with Senator Edward M. Kennedy and President George W. Bush. Senator McConnell has made it clear that he intends to return the Senate to regular order. Subcommittee and Committee hearings and markups will allow both Republicans and Democrats to offer, debate and vote on amendments. Floor action on legislation will give all 100 senators the right to offer amendments, debate them and vote. Maybe there will even be a conference report or two. Perhaps democracy will return to the Senate.
Finding ways to work together to get America growing again would be a good place to start. Tax reform is an issue both the president and Republicans support. To kick it off an agreement like the one President Ronald Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill made in 1985 would help: Any reform must be revenue neutral. This compromise led to the most fundamental tax reform passed by any Congress. If a dyed in the wool liberal and the country’s leading conservative could agree on revenue neutrality, shouldn’t that be possible today?
Underlining the growth theme, it should be possible to find some common ground on energy issues. Opening up more federal lands to exploration for oil and natural gas will further stimulate one of the fastest growing areas of our economy. We should also build a coalition of support to begin to export LNG and oil. This would help our friends in the Pacific region and in western and eastern Europe.
Maybe there is even a chance to build bridges on education policy. The president wants to extend Head Start and pre-K education. Republicans want to give parents and children the right to choose where they go to school. Is it possible that both sides can compromise and make children the winners?
The American people have decided to match up Republican control of the Congress with President Obama for the last two years of his presidency. It can be a time of stalemate or opportunity. The ball is in President Obama’s court. It’s his choice.
Dave Hoppe was chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. He is president of Hoppe Strategies, a lobbying and consulting firm.