As President Obama crisscrossed the country over the summer, he repeatedly warned his town hall audiences that the direction of the country is at stake in the upcoming midterm elections. "You have to put the car in 'D' to go forward, and put it in 'R' if you want to go in reverse," he riffed.
The "R," of course, stood for Republican, and the scenario the president was describing was what would happen if the GOP retakes control of the House or Senate in November.
Although a Republican House seems more likely than a GOP Senate, Republican strategists still say they can draw a plausible path to winning the 10 Senate seats necessary to retake the upper chamber.
In addition to necessary victories by moderates like Carly Fiorina from California, they say the freshman class of ten or more would also include a crop of true limited-government conservatives like Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has suggested eliminating the Departments of Education and Energy
; Mike Lee
from Utah, who advocates revisiting the 14th and 17th Amendments to the Constitution that deal with citizenship and states' rights; Alaska's Joe Miller, who told "Face the Nation" on Sunday that he believes unemployment benefits are unconstitutional; and Marco Rubio of Florida, who has consistently campaigned on repealing the recently passed health care law.
The result of the new blood, say senators, staffers and congressional scholars, would be a Republican caucus that is far more conservative than it is today, leading an assault on the Obama administration's agenda on the outside, while it faces a potential civil war within.
Without even gaveling into session, Senate-watchers say Day One of a Republican-led Senate would mean the legislative death of anything left on the wish lists of special-interest groups aligned with Democrats, such as the Employee Free Choice Act (the union-backed item known as "card check"); climate change legislation with a cap-and-trade mechanism; comprehensive immigration reform; and Don't Ask Don't Tell, if the Senate fails to pass it this year.
Also in danger would be portions of the health care reform bill passed into law in 2010, which Republicans have repeatedly promised to "repeal and replace," and possibly the most treasured -- but increasingly controversial -- form of legislating: the congressional earmark.
"What do Americans want? They want the size of the government reduced, they want wasteful Washington spending eliminated, they want legitimate functions for them," Sen. Tom Coburn told Politics Daily when asked about the effect of more Republicans joining the Senate in 2011. "We ought to give them the government that they want rather than the government that politicians want. I think lots of things will change that will be positive."
In addition to the early changes in the legislative agenda of a GOP Senate, every Senate committee would get a new chairman, who could significantly alter the direction of his or her new panel.
For example, a Democratic loss in November would move Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) into the chairman's role atop the Senate Armed Services Committee now occupied by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). While Levin has argued in favor of transitioning responsibilities in the Afghanistan War to the Afghans more quickly and has been a champion of repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell, McCain has fought bitterly with Levin over both. A Chairman McCain would be a hawkish presence in charge of the committee that will oversee the Pentagon and any future American military action, including in Iran.
Another key change in leadership would be on the Finance Committee, where Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) would likely hold the gavel during debates on tax cuts, tax hikes, health care reform, and any changes to Medicare and Medicaid. Although Hatch is known as a deal-maker who worked with no less a liberal lion than the late Ted Kennedy, Hatch is up for reelection in 2012. His fellow Utah Republican, Bob Bennett, was sent packing by local Republican activists this year who considered Bennett insufficiently conservative.
A GOP Senate would also likely see Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) heading the Environment and Public Works Committee and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) take over the Energy panel. Inhofe and Burr would be the first senators to weigh in on any climate change proposals from the White House, a scenario made predictably awkward by Inhofe's famous declaration
that global warming is "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." For his part, Burr has said he wants to reduce American dependence on foreign oil by expanding deep-water offshore drilling and nuclear power capabilities domestically.
Finally, the Senate Judiciary Committee led by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) would be far more aggressive overseeing and investigating the Obama administration than that of the current Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and would give any future Supreme Court picks a much tougher grilling than the mostly perfunctory hearings that Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan enjoyed under Leahy's direction.
Overseeing it all will likely be the current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is poised to become the Senate majority leader if the GOP takes back the chamber in November. But Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, noted that the influx of Tea Party conservatives endorsed by South Carolina's Jim DeMint could create a new and difficult dynamic within the GOP.
"The DeMint Caucus, as it might be called, will swell to a half dozen or more, creating perhaps as many problems for Mitch McConnell as for Barack Obama," Ornstein predicted. "If McConnell, like Gingrich in 1996, sees it in his and the GOP's self interest to cooperate and compromise with Obama -- he may face a revolt inside his own party."
DeMint has said he has no interest in taking over the Senate from McConnell, but he had no problem publicly chastising or even opposing his fellow Republicans for failing to live up to what he sees as the principles of the Republican Party.
In an interview with CBN
on Friday, DeMint said getting along with his GOP colleagues is not his goal. "Sometimes you have to stir things up to get things moving in the right direction," DeMint said. "And frankly, I believe that when our party was in the majority, Americans trusted us. We betrayed that trust and I don't want to ask people again for the majority if I'm not certain that the people who are calling themselves Republicans are going to stand up for the principles we say we believe in."
Dick Armey, the former House majority leader who now heads up FreedomWorks and is closely aligned with the Tea Party candidates, praised the potential senators that DeMint has championed and predicted that the new crop of GOP senators will change the behavior of the Senate they join, and not the other way around.
"They're coming here as a consequence of disaffection with the good-old-boy, get-along establishment behavior," Armey said. "That's going to have a sobering effect on the other members of Congress and in the Senate."