Results may shrink president’s agenda

President Obama could carve out some middle ground with GOP legislators if control of Congress shifts. President Obama could carve out some middle ground with GOP legislators if control of Congress shifts. (Jason Reed/ Reuters)
By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / November 2, 2010

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WASHINGTON — President Obama will reduce the scope of his legislative ambitions if Republicans seize control of the House today as is widely predicted, jettisoning proposals to control greenhouse gases and overhaul immigration laws in favor of more modest efforts such as improving education and highways, according to lawmakers, former White House officials, and political analysts.

Obama also is expected to engage in negotiations with Republicans on taxes and the federal deficit. As he develops his own 2012 reelection strategy, he will need to be seen as working credibly across the aisle, officials and analysts said.

“To win in 2012, it will be imperative that Obama get the economy back on track and generate jobs,’’ said Christopher N. Malagisi, a political science professor at American University. “He has to figure out how to win back independents if they have departed en masse in the midterms. Without both of those things happening, how can he win?’’

The GOP is expected to comfortably gain more than the 39 seats they need to secure control of the House, polls indicate. Although the Senate majority is more elusive — with Republicans expected to fall short of the 10 seats needed to take over the upper chamber — the GOP is likely to emerge emboldened and with enough clout to further stifle Obama’s agenda.

Republicans campaigned in the midterm elections on the idea that Obama overreached after his resounding victory in 2008. They are promising to launch efforts to repeal the health insurance overhaul, which will quickly put Democrats on the defensive. And Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, has indicated that the GOP will try to stymie Obama at every step in the next two years.

“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,’’ he said in a recent interview with National Journal.

But even with such heated partisan rhetoric and warnings of gridlock, the president and his team will be betting that Republicans want to demonstrate they are capable of governing. That could carve out some middle ground on a few select domestic issues, Afghanistan, and foreign trade.

In a Bloomberg News poll released last week, 80 percent of respondents said they want Democrats and Republicans to work together, even if it means compromising on some of their principles.

“It may take some time for things to settle down. The Republicans will come in feisty,’’ said David Mayhew, a political science professor at Yale University. “But there is reason to believe the two sides will make compromises in some areas.’’

Some pressing issues, such as the expiring Bush tax cuts, are expected to be addressed in the lame-duck session, before newly elected legislators take their seats in January. If not, some sort of tax relief could be the first priority in the next Congress.

The Republicans would like to extend all of the cuts, which expire Jan. 1, while the Obama administration would like to keep the ones for the middle class, while hiking the taxes of the wealthiest Americans.

The growing budget deficit may be the biggest issue the two parties can agree on, according to Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution and a former aide to Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. A bipartisan commission appointed by Obama is set to make recommendations next month on how to reduce the deficit.

Other analysts said they expect modest agreement on other fronts. On the war in Afghanistan, for example, Obama could get significant Republican support if he decides to maintain large numbers of troops there. There are also a series of pending trade agreements — one with South Korea and another with Colombia — that have the support of both the White House and the GOP.

Although a new stimulus bill to help the still-flagging economy is almost certainly off the table, Republicans might support a smaller-scale package of investments in public infrastructure along the lines of what the White House has proposed.

Other presidents in similar situations have retooled their strategy to amass some accomplishments. George W. Bush successfully secured passage of the No Child Left Behind education overhaul as well as some trade agreements with Democratic control of the Senate.

President Clinton, after losing the House in 1994, reached major agreement with Congress on welfare reform. And Harry Truman, after reeling from the midterm elections of 1946, went on to achieve major foreign policy victories, including passage of the Marshall Plan to restore economic health to postwar Europe.

Despite McConnell’s tough talk, his counterpart in the House, Representative John Boehner of Ohio — considered the presumptive speaker if control switches to the Republicans — has struck a slightly more conciliatory tone on taxes and education.

In September, Boehner suggested he would vote for Obama’s plan to extend tax cuts only for families earning less than $250,000.

Another area for compromise may be on improving the country’s education system. Boehner worked closely with the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy in passing the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001.

New changes proposed by the Obama administration would refine how officials measure the quality of schools, broadening the pass-fail grading system of the current law. Obama last month also said he wanted to push for more charter schools, longer school years, training 10,000 more math and science teachers, and increasing pay for teachers.

Boehner, who trumpets his work on education as one of his top legislative accomplishments, has said he agrees with most of the president’s plans for education. His spokesman, Michael Steel, said yesterday that Boehner and Obama have some common ground, particularly on tying teacher pay to performance. But there are also several areas of disagreement, he said, including spending increases and implementing new national standards.

On energy and climate policy, Obama has a bit of added leverage: He could use his authority as head of the executive branch to make regulatory changes that he can’t get through Congress. The White House could instruct the Environmental Protection Agency to take more incremental steps to institute tougher industry standards. Similar action could be taken to increase investments in environmentally friendly technologies.

Senator John F. Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who has been a leader in the Senate on the issues of climate change and energy, acknowledged in an interview that major GOP victories at the polls will prevent passage of broad climate-change legislation that includes control of carbon emissions. Scientists blame such emissions for warming the atmosphere.

“We’re going to have to do it on a step-by-step basis, mostly focusing on the energy components of the equation,’’ he said.

If the GOP wins control of both the House and the Senate today, Obama would probably rely heavily on his veto powers to stop some of the Republicans’ agenda.

In that case, “it’s a different game,’’ said Robert Reich, secretary of labor in the Clinton administration and a professor of public policy at the University of California Berkeley. “The game moves from offense to defense. He’ll be using his veto pen considerably to ward off efforts to undermine legislative initiatives passed in the first two years of his administration.’’

Mark Arsenault and Matt Viser of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Bryan Bender can be reached at