Get Ready for an Even More Divided Congress

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Democrats are unlikely to take the House and Republicans will struggle to capture the Senate. Will that mean more gridlock, or new pragmatism?

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Reuters

With the election less than seven months away one outcome is likely: Whichever party ends up controlling the House will have a smaller majority than the 242-193 one Republicans enjoy now (just under 56 percent); and the Senate's will be closer than Democrats' 53-47.

In the House, it looks highly doubtful that Democrats will score the 25-seat net gain necessary to capture a majority. But a net gain of some seats is very likely. One party will not score a net gain of 63 seats in one election as Republicans did in 2010 -- the largest gain for either party since 1948 and the largest midterm-election gain since 1938 --without giving up some of those seats. The redistricting process may have some fairly explosive results in individual states and real consequences to specific members. At this point, Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman estimates, Republicans are likely to score a nationwide net gain of one seat through redistricting. If the Florida map is thrown out in the courts, though, that could change. Two states, Kansas and New Hampshire, have yet to complete their maps. They are not, however, expected to feature dramatic changes. While a 25-seat net gain is not an enormous number of seats, Wasserman estimates that 80 percent of incumbents who gained partisan advantage were Republicans. The redistricting process probably saved them 10 to 15 seats overall. Wasserman puts the chances of Republicans losing seats at about 90 percent. Modest losses for Republicans are expected, but the chances of those approaching 25 are very slim.

In the Senate, basic arithmetic makes at least some Democratic losses inevitable. Democrats have 23 seats at risk. Republicans have just 10. If you knew nothing else, since one party has almost two-and-a-half times more seats exposed than the other party, this provides a very strong hint of the outcome. Open seats are usually harder to hold onto than those with incumbents. Democrats have seven open seats compared with only three for the GOP. This offers an even bigger hint. Clearly, the announcement of the recent retirement of Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, remained important. The open-seat disparity had been 7-to-2, even worse for Democrats. Finally, looking at specific races, Democrats have eight seats that are rated by the Cook Political Report as Toss Up. Or, in the case of Nebraska, they are worse (Likely Republican). Republicans only have three Toss Ups and none that are worse. Democrats have three other seats that are competitive. There are also four more potentially competitive seats. Republicans have no other competitive seats but have two potentially competitive ones.

With the current Democratic Senate majority, Republicans need a three-seat net gain if they win the presidency (and the power to break a Senate tie); they need four seats if they don't. The odds of Republicans retaking control were better before Snowe's retirement. Today, though, it looks pretty much 50-50. Their gains look most likely to end up as small as two seats or as high as five. There could be an outcome ranging from a Democratic majority of 51-49 to a GOP advantage of 52 to 48. Note the failure to use the term "control" in relationship to the Senate. As we know from recent experience, a party doesn't begin to have control of the Senate with anything less than 60 seats.

With the odds that the 113th Congress will be even more closely divided than the current one, it puts an additional twist to this fall and a potential lame duck session of Congress. Keeping in mind that all of the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of the year and budget sequestration kicks in on Jan. 2, could the parties in the majority want to step in and move before they lose clout? Or will they choose to defer responsibility, to kick the can down the sidewalk to the next Congress?

Historically, Americans have liked divided government: They fundamentally didn't completely trust either party. They saw split control as a form of checks and balances. And historically, divided government resulted in compromise: splitting the difference and toning down the excesses from each side. But in today's more polarized setting, divided government more often results in paralysis and dysfunction; each party is increasingly influenced, if not dominated, by their most ideological and less pragmatic factions.

The question is whether the configuration of the 113th Congress will result in even worse paralysis, or force compromise. One potentially intriguing aspect is if independent Angus King wins in Maine. While he has not indicated which party he will caucus with if he wins (and he is heavily favored to win), it is very likely that whether he ends ups up donning a blue Democratic jersey -- as most expect unless Republicans have a majority locked up -- or a red GOP jersey, he will be even more of an independent vote than Snowe was. There is even speculation that King is so committed to shaking up the Senate that if the chamber is divided 50-49 on Election Day, he might opt to tie it at 50-50 to force power sharing.

With increasing talk of a fiscal cliff coming late this year, what happens after the Nov. 6 election may be just as interesting as what happens before then.

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Charlie Cook is editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report and a political analyst for National Journal.

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