With a looming sense of a debacle in the midterm elections, some Democrats are rationalizing a silver lining: It may not be a bad thing if Republicans win control of at least one chamber of Congress on Nov. 2.
Then, the argument goes, the opposition would be responsible for governing decisions, and their positions — privatizing Social Security, rolling back health care benefits and giving huge tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans — would backfire.
The Democrats would come roaring back two years later. The model is President Clinton's re-election in 1996, two years after Republicans took over Congress.
Those who were there in the mid-1990s have a different view. "It would be an unmitigated disaster for us," said Tom O'Donnell, a Democratic political consultant. He was top aide to Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, the House Democratic leader in that earlier period, and remembers the nightmares it caused him.
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Few Republicans are worried about the burdens of responsibility; they relish the prospect, confident they will win a majority in the House and at least come close in the Senate.
A majority in the House would give Republicans three potent weapons: the power to frame the legislative agenda, control over some important funding decisions (though not entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare), and the means to subpoena and investigate the executive branch. Any Democrat who believes this is benign should call Bill Clinton.
In the House, the majority party decides which bills come up and which bills don't. President Obama's priorities won't be those of the presumptive Republican speaker of the House, John Boehner of Ohio. Instead, look for votes on many of the divisive social issues, red meat for conservatives, and enough proposed constitutional amendments to make the Founding Father James Madison blush.
When bills come up, it's the majority party that sets the ground rules, and determines which amendments or provisions are germane. If a tax bill is considered, almost a certainty, the minority party is especially disadvantaged, as amendments usually aren't permitted.
Even if they capture the Senate, too, Republicans wouldn't be able to fulfill their pledge to repeal the Obama health care plan. The president's veto pen would prevent that. There are provisions — including banning insurance companies from discriminating on the basis of pre-existing conditions or giving seniors more generous prescription-drug benefits — that many Republicans have no interest in repealing.
Still, they can wreak havoc with the measure's implementation by denying money for creating insurance exchanges to help 30 million uninsured Americans get coverage; not funding the Department of Health and Human Services or new enforcement agents for the IRS; and nixing complicated rules and regulations. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., with the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, unsuccessfully sought to dilute some rules last week.
Similarly, it's a political loser to try to repeal the financial-regulatory overhaul, a move that would enable Wall Street to go back to the pre-crash days. Some Republicans already are plotting to deny funding for items such as additional enforcement staff for the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates derivatives.
A top target will be the new consumer financial protection agency, which many Republicans opposed. It almost doesn't matter if Elizabeth Warren is tapped to head the agency; she would be summoned to Capitol Hill so often she wouldn't have time to run it.
She would be only one of the more prominent subjects. "Every member of the administration will be hauled up before Congress a lot," said former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat.
If Republicans take the House, next year's Dan Burton will be Darrell Issa. Smarter than Burton, the California congressman has the same gotcha goals.
As for 2012, Obama's re-election prospects will depend more on the shape of the economy and his opponent than on what congressional Republicans do next year. If, like Clinton in 1996, he gets a robust recovery, House Republican chairmen such as Issa or the lawmaker who would head the Judiciary Committee, the immigration-bashing Lamar Smith of Texas, will be irrelevant.
Finally, those Democrats who see that silver lining in losing the House and forcing responsibility on the opposition should remember that Congress remained in Republican hands in that 1996 election. Two years later, in a lame-duck session, that House majority voted to impeach Clinton for lying about sex.