House Republicans long ago made clear that, should Hillary Clinton win the Oval Office, she would not enjoy the “honeymoon” period that Congress traditionally offers incoming presidents. If anything, GOP lawmakers seem determined to create a more hostile environment for a new administration than any in recent memory.
Clinton often made the case during the primary that she would be better equipped than Sanders to work with Congress, but GOP lawmakers do not look prepared to give her much of a chance—even if she manages to win by a substantial margin in November. Congressional Republicans have already sought to block President Obama at every turn. Given the anti-Clinton acrimony that Donald Trump has ginned up among increasingly extremist GOP base voters, coupled with his unsubstantiated claims of a “rigged” election, Clinton will likely be welcomed to Washington with calls for her impeachment or even imprisonment.
Clinton will clash with Republicans in Congress starting day one over her nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. Congressional Republicans have refused for more than six months to even hold hearings to consider Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, arguing that voters should have the right to weigh in on the next justice via the presidential election. That rationale has already forced the Court into an unprecedented 4-4 deadlock on many crucial cases.
Arizona Republican Senator John McCain’s pledge that Republicans would unite against any Clinton Supreme Court nominee could lead to changes in the filibuster rules. Republicans’ stance could lead to the end of the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, or even to the elimination of the filibuster in its entirety. More importantly, Republicans could set a damaging precedent that Supreme Court vacancies will only be filled when the president and the Senate Majority Leader are from the same party.
Conservative activists say that such measures are necessary to stop Clinton from enacting policies that GOP voters strongly oppose, and to hold her accountable for transgressions involving her private email server that they argue were too lightly dismissed by Obama’s Justice Department. Ali Akbar, longtime GOP consultant and editorial director of the conservative new media venture OnRabble.com, sums up the mood on the right: “I don't think Clinton will get a honeymoon period. This election feels rigged and has the texture of theft.”
Could impeachment be in the works if Republicans hold the House? “She won't get impeached, but I can see a lot of pressure to appoint a special prosecutor for several matters half the country feels have gone unaddressed,” says Akbar. Fueling GOP pro-impeachment sentiment is that many Republicans see potential Vice President Tim Kaine preferable to Clinton, whom they revile. In Akbar’s words, “we would see the devil better for the country, than Hillary Clinton. Tim Kaine would be a huge relief.”
To be sure, a defeated Trump would leave behind him a GOP deeply divided by schisms over a wide range of policies and political strategies, including its approach to dealing with a Clinton administration. Some activists are already gunning for the removal of House Speaker Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, amid the Trump-fueled furor to take down “establishment” party leaders now at odds with the GOP nominee. Other Republicans will blame the party’s hardline Tea Party wing, as represented by Texas Senator Ted Cruz and the House Freedom Caucus, for what now looks like an inevitable loss of GOP congressional seats in 2016.
These post-election splits will run along the same lines as those that cleaved the GOP during Trump's rise to the nomination. Establishment voices will argue for caution and compromise, and seek to reestablish the party as one seen to be capable of governance. But the same forces that propelled Trump and Cruz to first and second place in the GOP primary will not go away overnight. Rather, the anti-establishment coalition that gave the nomination to Trump may continue to dominate a fractured GOP for years to come.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi signaled her concern about the intentions of Republicans in Congress last week, saying that GOP calls for “checks and balances” are just cover for an agenda of obstruction leading up to and including impeachment.
For Democrats, GOP obstruction has both an upside and a downside. The downside is that Republicans may block the progressive legislative agenda. If Democrats retake the Senate and Republicans hold onto the House, a divided Congress could prove unable to act on urgent domestic priorities—a state of gridlock that’s usually bad for the party of the incumbent president. At the same time, Republican overreach could set the stage for more GOP losses in the 2018 midterm. In the 1990s, Republican-led government shutdowns and the House’s impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton tried the patience of the American public, and made the GOP even more unpopular.
“Even if Hillary Clinton wins an overwhelming mandate, we expect Republicans to keep ignoring the demands of the American people for real action on the issues they care about, obstructing Democrats' attempts to create a fairer economy and a more just society,” says Eric Bauman, vice chairman of the California Democratic Party. “And if they try to impeach her, it will have the same effect it had when last they impeached a Clinton—it will serve as a huge distraction and only make her stronger in 2020.”
Little wonder that Democrats are focusing attention on down ballot races in a bid to make gains in and possibly even retake the House. For Clinton, the fate of the Senate is crucial, and could make the difference between an all-out deadlock with Congress, and the chance to at least showcase her legislative agenda. Either way, the bitter slugfest that’s making many voters long for the end of the White House contest may be just a trial run for the acrimony still to come.