Another era of divided government begins tomorrow with the commencement of the 112th Congress. Democrats will maintain control of the Senate, while Republicans will take control of the House of Representatives. This will be the first time since the 107th Congress that separate parties have controlled the two houses of the Legislative Branch. However, divided government also occurred in 2007, when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and Republicans controlled the Executive Branch. Since both houses of Congress must approve a bill before reaching the President’s desk, it will be interesting to see whether the two parties can work together to put forth any legislation that even reaches the President.
Though, even if Congress is successful in the approval of a bill, President Obama must then sign the bill for it to become law. President Obama has already vetoed two bills during his tenure, with one of those being the recent robo-signing foreclosure controversy bill and the other was a pocket veto concerning stopgap spending in late 2009. Since these two vetoes came under a Democratic Congress, it shows how the President is more than willing to utilize his veto power.
Comparatively, George W. Bush did not veto a bill until he was halfway through the sixth year of his presidency (June 2006), which dealt with stem-cell research. However, after Democrats took control of Congress in 2007, President Bush issued eleven other vetoes. This also shows how the President is more likely to veto a bill under divided government.
However, 2011 is not completely analogous to 2007, due to Democrats controlling both houses of Congress in 2007. This means President Obama probably will not see as drastic of an increase in the use of his veto power as President Bush, due to Democrats in the Senate who would block a bill that is unfavorable for Democrats.
For instance, Republicans in the House have already scheduled a vote for January 12th regarding a repeal of the health care law. The proposed bill has been titled the “Repeal of the Job-Killing Health Care Law” [.pdf], as introduced by Eric Cantor of Virginia. Despite the bill likely passing the House, it will likely reach a stalemate in the Senate. In order for the bill to pass the Senate, all 47 Republican Senators would have to approve the bill, as well as 13 Democratic Senators (including Lieberman and Sanders who are not registered Democrats, but caucus with the Democrats).
Also, even if this bill did pass the Senate, President Obama would likely veto it, thereby requiring a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress to enact the bill. This supermajority of both houses is unlikely to occur because it would require 49 Democratic Representatives, as well as 20 Democratic Senators to approve the bill. Republicans, such as Fred Upton of Michigan, have acknowledged this bill is unlikely to pass and that further attempts would be made for repeal of specific provisions of the health care law, rather than repeal of the entire law.
More specifically, Republicans would likely try to repeal Section 1501 of the health care law. As discussed in the past, this provision requires individuals to purchase health insurance, or else be subject to an annual fine. Though, for the same reasons of the above bill, a repeal of any specific provision of the Affordable Care Act is unlikely. This reality shows how Republicans have an uphill battle in the 112th Congress.
On the other hand, Democrats will also need Republican support to pass a bill. Democrats control 193 seats in the House, while Republicans control 242 seats. As a result, Democrats would need almost fifty Republicans to support a Democratic bill, in addition to seven Republicans in the Senate. Clearly, any bill that passes in the next two years will require support from both Democrats and Republicans.
Further, if the 112th Congress is able to pass a number of bills, it will be a result of shifts toward the middle. As was seen in the recent lame duck session, instead of having all Republicans or all Democrats approve a bill, a shift to the middle would result with the most partisan officials becoming disenfranchised, while the more moderate officials of each party are able to reach an agreement. For example, Bernie Sanders of Vermont opposed the recent extension of the tax cuts and gave a filibuster speech that lasted over eight hours. Despite this filibuster, the tax cuts were passed with enough approval from both Democrats and Republicans.
Lastly, the next two years may resemble one of the most partisan eras of government, but an era similar to the recent lame duck session is more likely.