Could Clinton Tame Congress?

J. Scott Applewhite/AP Images

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton huddles with Senator John McCain on Capitol Hill in Washington, 2013. 

This article appears in the Fall 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

When the market research firm YouGov asked Donald Trump supporters in August what they thought of Hillary Clinton, 93 percent said she was “corrupt,” 92 percent called her “dangerous,” and a striking 84 percent branded her downright “evil.”

Such visceral GOP hostility spells gridlock on Capitol Hill should Clinton win the White House. Republicans are almost certain to retain control of the House—which may well tilt even further right, as moderate Republicans retire or struggle to retain their seats. Predicts David Wasserman, House editor of The Cook Political Report: “Calls to impeach Hillary Clinton will begin well before she takes office.”

This gloomy scenario bodes poorly for the ambitious policy agenda Clinton has pledged to enact with Republican help, including infrastructure investments, immigration changes, and an overhaul of criminal sentencing laws. These are areas where some Republicans, at least in principle, say they want action—unless their goal is to deny Clinton any legislative wins.

One factor could improve Clinton’s odds, however: a Democratic Senate. Democrats are by no means certain to win. Polls in late September show Republicans better positioned to keep the Senate than they were six months ago. Nevertheless, if Democrats can win even a 50-50 Senate, with the vice president as tie-breaker and Democrats in control of committees and Senate agenda-setting, that would give a President Clinton an important boost.

If her party doesn’t win the Senate, Clinton will likely confront the same scorched-earth obstructionism that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has employed to block President Obama at every turn. Clinton’s campaign pledges of free public college, paid family leave, and a campaign-finance overhaul are anathema to GOP lawmakers. If Republicans still run both chambers of Congress, budget showdowns and anti-Clinton investigations will be a constant, divisive distraction.

Should Senate Democrats prevail, however, Clinton will enjoy fresh leverage over a GOP House, in the following areas:

Confirmations. A Democratic Senate could approve one or more Clinton Supreme Court nominees, install her cabinet without delay, and help her fill lower-court vacancies. Republicans can resort to the filibuster, but it is not possible, practically or politically, to demand a 60-vote supermajority on every issue.

Hearings. Senate committees controlled by Democrats could call their own hearings to counter GOP probes. They could pursue such issues as Russia’s role in email hacks and election disruptions, as well as Republican-sponsored efforts at the state level to block the right to vote. They could use hearings to shine a spotlight on areas of social need, such as child poverty, work and family, as well as continued gouging by big banks, as Democratic senators did in the heyday of progressive legislation. This in turn could move public opinion.

Agenda-Setting and Scheduling. A Senate majority would hand Democrats control of that chamber’s floor schedule and the power to spotlight popular Clinton initiatives. Senator Charles Schumer, a no-nonsense pragmatist who represented New York alongside Clinton when she served in the Senate, would be the new majority leader. Schumer would give Clinton a platform to showcase her budget, economic agenda, and immigration plan, helping rally voters as Democrats gear up for a tough 2018 midterm election that threatens to put Republicans back in charge.

“The Senate Majority Leader has very considerable power to bring bills to the floor, to determine the timetable by which they are brought to the floor, or to bottle them up,” says William Galston, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who served in the Bill Clinton White House. The majority leader also “can determine what people are going to be talking about,” he adds. “You can lead with the pieces of your agenda that you believe enjoy the most broad-based support, and dare the opposition party to block them.”


Desperately Seeking Bipartisanship

Highway to Heaven? Infrastructure spending is one of the few areas of potential bipartisan collaboration. Clinton has pledged to invest $275 billion over five years in upgrading the nation’s roads, bridges, waterways, energy grid, and public transit systems. At least some rank-and-file Republicans are eager to fund bridges and roads for their own locales, and the issue unites business groups, labor unions, and local legislators.

With a Senate majority, Democrats could hold infrastructure hearings and run a messaging campaign that puts pressure on the House. “I think if she’s president and Democrats control the Senate, that there’s the best chance in decades that we actually get something done,” says Marcia Hale, president of Building America’s Future, a bipartisan infrastructure coalition of elected officials.

The rub is how to pay for it. One obvious revenue source—a gas tax increase—is a nonstarter with Republicans. Clinton has called for a national infrastructure bank that would offer $25 billion in federal loans and loan guarantees. A frequently discussed revenue source is a corporate tax overhaul. Obama has proposed paying for infrastructure improvements via a one-time, 14 percent tax on companies’ foreign profits, an idea that has drawn interest from both Schumer and House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Debates over tax rewrites, however, are notoriously divisive, and invariably draw intense lobbying from competing interests. Given Obama’s repeated face-offs with congressional Republicans over government shutdowns and defaults, Clinton may be lucky if she can simply keep the government up and running, let alone revamp the complicated tax system.

The Budget. Obama faced humiliating Republican wins on the budget, and ended up moving in a fiscally conservative direction that precluded spending initiatives at a time when the economy was still fragile. A Democratic Senate could give Clinton more leverage than Obama has had.

A key budget fight looming in 2017 will be over budget sequestration, the across-the-board spending caps first imposed as part of a 2011 fiscal austerity plan. A two-year budget deal that provided relief from the deep spending cuts imposed by sequestration will expire next year.

Clinton would be better positioned than Obama in two respects. First, the final legislative bargaining would be between Republican House conferees and Democratic Senate counterparts, rather than all-Republican conferees versus the White House.

Second, Obama had not only Republicans to contend with, but fiscally conservative Democrats in key posts, such as now-retired Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota, then the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee, undercutting his bargaining leverage. These legislators are mostly gone, and deficit-reduction fever has burned itself out on the Democratic side. A freshly installed Democratic Senate would favor new program initiatives, not further spending cuts.

Until now, Senate Republicans have held the purse strings of the non-defense portion of the sequestration relief package, shortchanging federal labor, health and human services, and education programs. If Democrats control the Senate Appropriations Committee, however, those programs could get a bigger share of sequestration offsets.

In a Democratic Senate, “the dollars allocated under those caps get spent in a way that aligns with progressive priorities, [which] has not happened before,” says Winnie Stachelberg of the Center for American Progress. Under Republicans, adds Stachelberg, Obama’s budget was not even dead on arrival—it was dead the moment it left the Office of Management and Budget. Senate Democrats could showcase a Clinton budget and invite cabinet secretaries to testify about it on Capitol Hill.

Immigration Reform. A key area that will put Clinton’s plans for bipartisan cooperation to the test is immigration. Clinton has promised to introduce immigration legislation during her first 100 days, and has cited it as a reason “why we need to elect a Democratic Senate, so we have some friends.” In 2013, Senate Democrats helped push through a sweeping immigration overhaul spearheaded by a bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators that included Schumer. Schumer “would love to take the ball and run with it” again next year, says Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigration advocacy group America’s Voice. But Sharry says immigration advocates are angling for a fresh approach built around pressuring the House to take action first.

“It was a center-right bill drafted by a Gang of Eight, designed to put pressure on the House, and it didn’t work,” says Sharry of the 2013 bill, which was blocked in the House. Now immigration advocates are looking “for a different approach that compels action in the House first, or at least simultaneously with Senate action,” Sharry adds. “Because otherwise it’s all an exercise in spinning our wheels.”

Clinton could signal to House Republicans that if they don’t act, she will take executive action. Though key Obama executive actions were blocked in court, the Supreme Court balance is changing. Even without a friendlier high court, immigration advocates argue that Clinton could take administrative steps to stop detaining families, to explore detention alternatives, and to limit deportations mostly to those with criminal records.

“The role of an empowered Democratic Senate has been critical in getting the administration to use their executive tools, and critical to putting legislation in play,” says Sharry. “And without it, a Clinton administration would have constant battles with a Republican Congress over any measures to treat immigrants more humanely.”


Vodka and Bourbon

Some Democrats speculate that Clinton might enjoy better relations with congressional Republicans than Obama has, pointing to her success as a senator on numerous bipartisan initiatives that won her GOP fans. As a senator, Clinton’s bipartisan successes included legislation to bring broadband service to rural communities, and in 2005 she worked with Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, then the majority leader, on legislation to modernize medical records. She was confirmed as secretary of state on a roll call vote of 94 to 2.

“Some of them half expected to see horns growing out of her head,” recalls Democratic strategist Jim Manley, a former Senate leadership aide to Harry Reid, “and they came to learn that she was, in fact, a nice person. Warm, gracious, and someone they could do business with.”

Clinton is better known for her social instincts than Obama, whose reputation as aloof and disengaged from Capitol Hill rankled not only Republicans but members of his own party. She famously engaged in a vodka drinking game with Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona on a congressional trip to Estonia in 2004.

“She was a serious senator who developed a lot of friendships with Republicans during her years in the Senate,” says Galston. “If she could drink vodka with John McCain, she can drink bourbon with Mitch McConnell.”

Maybe, but it’s a long way from drinks to bipartisan legislation. Obama also worked cordially with Republicans as a senator, and that did not prevent them from demonizing him once he became president.

Hillary Clinton also served as first lady when Bill Clinton was striking landmark deals with Republicans on trade, deficit reduction, family leave, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, and welfare reform, even though then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich loathed the president. Some of them (trade, welfare) required Clinton to move to the right, but others (EITC, family leave) enacted long-standing progressive goals. Bill Clinton was superb at combining the power of the bully pulpit with legislative inside baseball. In the end, Gingrich blinked first over government shutdowns.

Even if Bill is present as a tactical role model and legislative strategist, however, the electorate is far more ideologically divided today and Republican legislators even more ferociously partisan than in the 1990s. Hillary Clinton’s campaign promises to raise the minimum wage, expand family leave, rein in Wall Street banks, and make college tuition free are a study in contrasts with this year’s GOP platform, which pledges to cut taxes for the wealthy, roll back environmental regulations, and privatize Medicare.


Ryan Redux

A key player will be Paul Ryan, the likely House speaker in the next Congress. Ryan is known for his interest in public-policy details and his on-again-off-again willingness to work across the aisle. He has broadly endorsed changes in immigration, tax policy, even poverty programs. He backs expanding the EITC, and has endorsed a so-called 10-20-30 anti-poverty plan introduced by House Democrat Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, which would give 10 percent of federal economic recovery money to communities that have had a 20 percent poverty rate for 30 years.

There are two problems, however. Careful analysts of Ryan’s anti-poverty proposals, such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, say the proposals are mostly a phony cover for slashing federal aid. His proposed merger of key anti-poverty programs into one big block grant would amount to a net reduction in aid to the poor, the center has found.

Politically, the far-right House Freedom Caucus—which helped oust Ryan’s predecessor, Ohio Republican John Boehner—will probably be even bigger and more influential in the next Congress. GOP gerrymandering has left sitting House Republicans in perpetual fear of primary challenges from the right. That means that even Republicans who might want to work with Clinton in principle will be reluctant to give her any victories. On immigration, however much Ryan might want a bipartisan success, the House Freedom Caucus will invariably balk.

“If Ryan would take whatever Republicans would come with him, and let it be primarily a Democratic bill in the House, he’d stop being speaker shortly thereafter,” predicts Thomas Mann, a longtime Congress expert at the Brookings Institution.

Clinton, for her part, would face strong pressure from her party’s left flank. Backers of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders argue that Clinton should force Republicans to go on the record on votes to reject the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and on environmental regulations, paid family leave, gun safety, voting rights, campaign-finance restrictions, and other progressive priorities.

“She’s campaigning on expanding Social Security, not cutting it,” Executive Director Ilya Sheyman told The New York Times. “It will be incumbent on a President Clinton very early in 2017 to force Republicans to accept big, bold ideas or else have them pay the consequences.”

But if they don’t control both chambers of Congress, Democrats have limited leverage—no matter how hard liberal activists push. “She may act on them in good faith,” says Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, of Clinton’s progressive policy priorities. “But there may not be much to show the Sanders wing of the party at the end of the day.”

Clinton’s window for action, moreover, may be limited to two years. Democrats face a daunting Senate map in the 2018 midterms, with five Senate Democrats up for re-election representing red states that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012—Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia. Those senators may resist the more progressive planks of Clinton’s agenda.

Clinton’s first ugly Hill showdown is likely to occur the moment she assumes office, when she seeks to confirm a successor to the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has suggested that Democrats may need to change the rules to make it easier for senators to overcome a filibuster in order to win confirmation. Yet they may think twice, given that the Senate could well revert to Republicans in 2018.

“I think her team is going to have a tough job on their hands,” says Manley. “In this current polarized environment we find ourselves in, which I don’t think is going to change any time soon, it’s going to be tough for her to overcome the suspicions of some on the right that she should simply be in jail, and not in the White House.”

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