Burgess Everett and Manu Raju
Republicans on the campaign trail say they're going to take control of the Senate in November.
But what they don't say is that they'll still need Democrats to get anything done.
Much like the last four years of Majority Leader Harry Reid's tenure, when the Nevada Democrat relied on picking off swing Republicans, a GOP-led Senate would almost certainly be closely divided. A Senate led by Mitch McConnell and a narrow Republican majority would empower a small band of moderates like Joe Manchin, a conservative West Virginia Democrat, who GOP leaders would be forced to woo to pass anything at all.
A GOP majority would still have to depend on Democrats to break 60-vote filibusters -- which means that conservatives' biggest priorities would be unlikely to succeed. Still, Republicans would have free rein to block and stymie President Barack Obama's nominations to key Cabinet and judicial positions other than the Supreme Court.
"It's very hard to get 60 votes if you don't compromise," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-M0.). "And so this notion that they're going to be able to exact this right-wing agenda? That's fantasyland."
If Republicans win the Senate, McConnell (R-Ky.) -- the prospective majority leader if he wins reelection -- would be in a bind: stuck between demands of the tea party and moderates in both parties who are willing to strike a deal. Enter Manchin, who exemplifies the type of Democrat that McConnell would have to work with.
"I am who I am. I don't fit anywhere," Manchin said of his politics, too conservative for most Democrats but too liberal for most Republicans. Even so, he's considering donating to GOP incumbents who share his centrist tendencies.
The next two years in Congress will also determine whether a new wave of younger senators decide to become institutionalists or cut short their Senate service and leave the chamber. If more gridlock ensues, deal-making pols like Manchin could head for the exits sooner than expected. In an interview, Manchin said he was "absolutely" considering another run for West Virginia governor in 2016; his Senate term doesn't end until 2018.
The West Virginia Democrat is a key voice among pragmatic lawmakers who can control whether the next majority's agenda will sink or swim in the final two years of Obama's presidency -- no matter who is in charge. In this Congress, these centrist Democrats and Republicans up for reelection in 2016 from blue and purple states have already exerted themselves on jobless benefits, gun control and employment discrimination and are bound to play an even more central role in 2015.
Moderate Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, as well as Rob Portman of Ohio, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Mark Kirk of Illinois, helped pass the recent extension of jobless benefits against their party's will. They will likely hold trump cards in the next Congress, too, and all but Collins face voters in two years in purple and blue states.
They will be joined in the Senate's centrist core by Democrats who won red states in 2012, like Manchin, McCaskill and Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, as well as members of the class of 2014 who survive tough races in Arkansas, North Carolina, Louisiana and Alaska.
With their ability to single-handedly stall legislation, all senators have enormous power to upset even the most carefully orchestrated leadership plans. But as the recent battle over extending jobless benefits made clear, a handful of Republicans and moderate Democrats can be pivotal in striking bipartisan deals that can actually clear the Senate.
Even conservatives up for reelection in 2016 like Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania voted with Democrats to open debate on the jobless bill in March, surprising members in both parties. While they both ended up voting against the bill to help the long-term unemployed, Republicans from blue states say their forays into aisle-crossing should surprise no one.
"Your political opponents have an incentive to draw a caricature that's inaccurate," said tea party favorite Toomey, who last year cut a deal with Manchin on gun legislation and voted for a bill to broaden workplace protections to gays and lesbians. "There were inaccurate characterizations of who I am and what I'm about. And time and actual history fleshes out the truth and reality."
In this fall's elections, there are numerous paths to a Senate Republican majority by winning a net of at least six seats to retake power in the chamber for the first time since 2006. Republicans say the problems that come with holding a Senate majority are something they're eager to have, even if being in the minority has occasionally empowered individual Republicans by forcing Democratic leaders to work with GOP lawmakers willing to cut a deal.
"Setting hearings on issues is really the vital aspect of a majority," said John McCain of Arizona, one of 43 senators who have served under a Republican Senate majority leader.
But since the GOP would hold the reins by a slim 51-49 or 52-48 majority, some in the party are quietly talking about convincing some Democrats to switch parties. At the top of the list: Manchin and Angus King of Maine, an independent elected in 2012 who caucuses with Democrats.
But both Manchin and King have thrown cold water on the prospects of party-switching -- meaning a Senate Republican majority would have to urge them to defect on individual votes to get Republicans closer to the 60 votes needed to break filibusters.
"How would you switch parties?" said Manchin, who supports Obamacare and votes with Democrats more than 70 percent of the time, according to OpenCongress. "Never thought about that, no. The bottom line is you'd have to change your whole philosophical beliefs."
Two senior Democratic aides said King has reached out to Senate Democratic leaders to tell them not to take seriously suggestions he may caucus with Republicans if the GOP retakes the majority.
Even though he rarely votes with Republicans, King insisted in an interview that he's not a "Democrat in independent's clothing."
"What I hope is that the Republicans will see me as somebody that will listen and try to be an honest broker," King said, pointing to a bipartisan deal he helped broker this Congress on student loans and his GOP leanings on regulatory reform.
Even if caucus-switching is likely a GOP pipedream, Senate centrists are vowing to play a larger role in the next Congress -- after being pushed to the side over the last several years as the country has lurched from crisis to crisis, the committee process has broken down and legislators have often seemed more focused on messaging, less on lawmaking.
Heitkamp, a freshman Democrat from North Dakota, singled out Murkowski, Ayotte and Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker as Republicans with whom she's hoping to push bipartisan legislation next year, regardless of who's in charge.
"It is not always in your best interest to take on leadership, and it's about building a group of people who have a shared common experience who then can support each other," Heitkamp said. "If you're out there alone not communicating with people who want to get things done, who are doing what you're doing, it can get really lonely."
Many senators eager to cut deals are already jockeying to become more relevant in the next Congress, hoping more gridlock doesn't persuade them to call it quits -- as it did with other deal-making senators, like Republicans Olympia Snowe of Maine, Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.
Manchin could be one of them. He isn't up for reelection until 2018 and makes no secret that he still would like to be a state executive after cutting short his second term as governor to replace the late Robert Byrd in 2010. Manchin is "absolutely" considering another run for governor, calling it a "big option." West Virginia governors can serve two consecutive terms, then are eligible to run again after four years have passed, clearing the way for a Manchin run in 2016.
"I'll wait until after the "14 election and start making some decisions," Manchin said. "I would never say I'm leaning any way."
For now he wants to make sure he isn't one of the last consensus-seekers in the Senate. He supports Democrat Natalie Tennant in her run to replace the retiring West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller but questioned whether it is "morally right" to "beat up" on Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito in that race. He said the state has "two good candidates" in the race -- not exactly holding the party line.
And he's even thinking of repaying friendly Republicans for their political support, just as Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) did in 2012 when he gave Manchin money.
"I hope Susan Collins wins. I hope [South Carolina Sen.] Lindsey Graham wins. A lot of them I hope will win," Manchin said of GOP incumbents. Asked if those members might receive a check from Manchin, he replied: "Thinking about it. I think there needs to be more of that. Good people are good people, whether Democrat or Republican."