Dec 20th, 2017, 01:22 PM

Mr. Jones Goes to Washington — What Next?

By Ian Katzman
Image credit: Shutterstock
After the upset election victory of Democrat Doug Jones, a razor-think majority in the Senate leaves Republicans vulnerable heading into mid-terms in 2018.

Underdog Doug Jones' victory over Republican candidate Roy Moore in the Alabama senatorial election was the first time in over 25 years that a Democratic candidate for Senate won an election in that state.

This amounts to a crushing defeat for the Republican leadership in Congress. With a razor-thin majority just 51 Republicans in the Senate, they need as many senatorial votes as they can get. The passage of conservative legislation now hinges on a two-vote margin. If the Senate majority were unified, this would not be an issue. However, many Republican senators have announced their opposition to President Trump and some of his key legislative goals. John McCain shot down the Republican health care bill just a few months ago. Other Republican senators, such as Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, have repeatedly threatened to torpedo conservative bills if they are not moderated by the Senate leadership. Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake — both have announced their retirement at the end of their terms — declared their opposition to the ethno-nationalist ideology associated with Trump. A number of other senators, such as Ben Sasse, have voiced concern about the direction the Republican party has been taking under Trump, but have otherwise been voting with their party.

With such a large number of disgruntled and rebellious senators in the conservative coalition, passing major legislation will likely become a serious challenge. These splits are compounded by the already significant ideological differences inside the Republican caucus. After the election of Barack Obama, parts of the Republican party departed from the traditional “small government, free market” line that was established as a cornerstone of conservative politics by Ronald Reagan and moved towards a more extreme “family values” conservatism (Ted Cruz, Mike Lee), hard-line libertarianism (Rand Paul), or “old-guard” Republican politics (Mitch McConnell) clinging to the policy platforms they’ve known since the 1970s and 1980s.

This amounts to a highly fractured Republican senatorial conference, and bodes poorly for their ability to pass legislation after Doug Jones takes his seat in January. With a majority of only two votes, including the vice-president's tie-breaking vote, Republican leadership will have to acquire near-unanimous support in caucus to move any legislation through the Senate. This will likely be difficult for controversial and polarizing legislation, especially when it's complicated by a highly volatile president in the White House with rock-bottom approval ratings. If Trump were to continue his attacks on Republican senators, it could drive away a crucial vote.


The new Democratic senator for Alabama, Doug Jones. Image Credit: PBS.

If Republicans are not able to pass legislation on their own, they will have to choose between two politically unpalatable options.

On the one hand, they can choose not to pass any legislation. This would likely have the effect of damaging their already flimsy popularity and ability to get votes, as increasingly dissatisfied voters become frustrated with their inaction. This would be compounded by the President's inclination to place the blame on others when there is perceived anger among voters. It is not hard to envision a situation where Congress becomes stalled and the President uses his Twitter account to assail senators, or even the Senate itself. The result for Republicans would be a highly tenuous position going into the 2018 mid-term elections, which would set the tempo for the 2020 presidential election.

The other option would be to provide enough concessions to Democrats to acquire their votes to pass legislation. This presents a host of issues. The first and foremost is that Democrats will likely be in the same position that Republicans found themselves in 2010, with more to gain by blockading all potential legislative victories for the opposing party. For Democratic senators to help the President and his congressmen pass legislation, they would have to  be willing to give them concessions that would be significant enough to overcome the political damage that could be caused by being seen to vote with the President.

Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi have shown themselves willing to work with President Trump when it's advantageous to them, but so far it has only been on procedural issues such as when they convinced the President to agree to a three-month extension to the debt limit.  Whether they would be willing to help the President pass his own legislation, knowing that it would be a political boon to him as well as their opponents on the hill, would be another question entirely. If Republicans were to succeed in such a gambit, it might not sit well with their base of supporters.

Obviously, Doug Jones' upset victory has put the Republican party in a precarious position. If they are not able to navigate the pinhole margin that’s left for them, they will likely find themselves in a no-win situation that could severely damage their chances at maintaining control of the Senate in 2018.