When Iowa and North Carolina were called almost simultaneously a little before 11:30 Tuesdaynight, the seemingly inevitable became official: Republicans will control the Senate and thus the entire legislative branch.
On a variety of fronts, this new alignment is going to be hugely problematic for progressive governance—perhaps for governance, period. These will be the major flash points. The last one is the most important because it’s how the GOP will force Obama’s hand on most of the rest.
1. Staffing the Executive Branch.
For much of the Obama presidency, Republicans in the Senate stymied up dozens of presidential appointments to cabinet slots big and small, as well as nominations to the federal bench. Harry Reid implemented filibuster reform one year ago, and nominations have been handled more quickly—but with Republicans in charge, expect them to grind to a halt. Republicans blocked nominees reflexively under the old filibuster rules, many times without offering a single actual objection, and that’s very likely to resume now.
Republicans well understand that failing to staff the executive branch—and particularly the judicial branch—is a great way to slow down Obama’s priorities now, and even affect the trajectory of American jurisprudence long after he leaves office. There are still fifty-nine vacancies on federal district and appellate courts, a 7-percent vacancy rate, and 35 percent of those empty seats are in areas that have been declared judicial emergency. This problem will get much worse, not better, over the next two years.
2. Filling a Supreme Court Vacancy.
The old filibuster rules still required sixty votes to confirm a Supreme Court nominee, which was going to be a tough lift anyway. But Obama managed it twice already. With Republicans in charge, it may be impossible.
First the nominee would have to clear the GOP-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee, which will be chaired by conservative stalwart Chuck Grassley. Then, a Republican Senate has to approve the nominee. In the event Obama sends any kind of discernibly liberal judge to the Senate, it’s easy to imagine the GOP outright blocking him or her. Alternately, Obama could try to avoid that situation by making an opaque nomination with no discernible views on key issues like abortion and money in politics. This might be the more terrifying of the two possibilities.
3. Deregulating Carbon Emissions.
If the GOP’s biggest goal is repealing Obamacare, a close second is blocking the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed limits on carbon emissions. As Senator Sheldon Whitehouse pointed out on All In with Chris Hayes last night, the GOP House has actually passed more bills targeting the EPA than those repealing Obamacare. And unlike with the Affordable Care Act, Republicans have the full and enthusiastic backing of their corporate allies in blocking EPA carbon limits.