As everyone knows, the 114th Congress recently took office. The biggest question that remains is whether anything will be able to get done in the next two years. The rules of Congress, particularly the Senate, make cooperation nearly impossible in a country so closely divided along partisan lines.
Democrats still have the numbers in the Senate to filibuster every last piece of legislation Republicans try to pass. Only 41 votes are needed to block any legislation, and Democrats currently have 46 votes. Five Democrats can defect from the rest of the caucus and still successfully block legislation.
Most measures in the Senate are passed through a procedure known as unanimous consent, where no voice vote is taken. Any one senator can block legislation. Theoretically, Democrats could object to every single unanimous consent motion in the Senate.
Because the Republican majority is so thin, it is possible for Democrats to attach what are known as “riders” to Republican bills and have them act as “poison pills” to torpedo their legislation. Democrats would need to get four Republican defections in the Senate to kill any bill through this method.
Republicans in the House of Representatives are a different breed. When the vote was taken to elect a Speaker of the House, a record number of Republicans chose not to vote for the speaker. Around 20 conservatives are true wild cards in their voting behavior. These are essentially the same Republicans that have voted against raising the debt ceiling, Hurricane Sandy relief money and various budget deals in the past.
In addition, the electorate of the Democratic caucus in both the House and Senate is far more liberal than the previous Congress. Nearly all the losses suffered by the Democrats were from the conservative wing of the party. Likewise, in order to get such a large majority, Republicans opted to run more moderate candidates in a number of contests. If Democrats choose not to give any votes to Republican legislation in the House, its very possible legislation could be killed in the process. With Republicans having absolute control of the House and Senate, many Democrats will see no political upside in helping Republicans succeed.
Congress is not the only reason we may be in for two more years of gridlock. Obama can veto all Republican legislation that gets past both chambers. The number of votes needed to override a Presidential veto in the Senate is 66 and is 288 in the House of Representatives. Simply put, Republicans will need to hold all their Republican caucus and 22 Democratic votes in the House, and 12 in the Senate, a tall order for a party that was so adversarial toward the President during his first six years in office.
Obama has already stated he will do everything he possibly can through executive orders. Obama’s use of executive action was a defining characteristic of his Presidency in 2014, and 2015 appears to be no different. It is in this realm Obama will attempt to cement his legacy.