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What will change -- and what won't -- if GOP captures the House

Madame Speaker, we hardly knew ye.

The gains that House Democrats made in the last two cycles -- winning the majority in 2006 that began Nancy Pelosi's historic tenure in the speaker's suite, then enhancing their margins in 2008 -- are likely to be swept away Tuesday in a tsunami that makes those two elections look like ripples on the Capitol Reflecting Pool.

If it happens, the effect on President Obama's agenda will be immediate and profound -- and the much maligned "broken" system of Washington politics and policy is likely to get more contentious and invidious before it gets better, if it is to get better at all.

The president's party would be in the minority. And as both Pelosi and her apparent successor, John Boehner, know from years of bitter experience, to be in the House minority is to be virtually powerless to influence and shape legislation. When you're talking about holding the majority in the House, you're talking about controlling everything -- from committee investigations and the recycling regimen in House offices, to which bills will even be considered for debate on the floor and what is served for lunch in the cafeteria.

There is no give and take, no horse trading with the minority over much of anything. Democrats would be utterly impotent, unable to advance the president's agenda.

"The best system is to have one party govern and the other party watch." That was the philosophy of running the House set forth by 19th Century Speaker Thomas Reed that is still adhered to today, much as it has been through most of the history of Congress, regardless of which party is running things.

What the minority can do
Virtually the only way for the minority to make an impact is to maintain party discipline, to present a united front and draw a party line on big votes. After all, within the parameters of conventional political practice, they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by doing so. The object is to trip up the opposition and regain power, because we are the good guys and they are the bad guys. No in-betweens.

The majority does not have that luxury, and is therefore forced to twist arms and break some china within its own camp in order to demonstrate that they can function. That forces compromise -- a dirty word to doctrinaire supporters -- and it results in internal fissures and factions.

In keeping with this, any individual piece of major legislation, regardless of its particular merits, must be opposed by the minority. Look at the infamous late-night, three-hour Medicare prescription-drug vote as an example. The bill, pushed by President Bush and Republican majority leadership, established an entire new (and also unpaid-for) benefit under Medicare. Let's be honest: The legislation was something that Democrats had long sought, and -- donut hole or no donut hole -- has turned out to be popular among seniors.

But for weeks, minority Democratic leaders worked tirelessly to keep their troops against it. When the vote finally came, one Democrat, Rep. David Wu of Oregon, spent almost two hours on the floor in what appeared to be a trance-like state, staring up at the tally board without slipping his voting card into the machine. At his side was a parade of Democratic colleagues beseeching him to vote "nay."

With so many Dems voting against the measure, and with the hardest of the hard-core conservative true-believers defying their president and leaders by refusing to support it, chaos ensued on the Republican side. In the end, only a 4:00 am phone call from the president himself resulted in the switch of two GOP votes from NAY TO YEA, and the unfunded entitlement passed as dawn broke. It was ugly and even scandalous, and to this day conservatives lament both the bill and the process that led to its adoption.

Last year, Boehner was making his way to the chamber as the House prepared to vote on the stimulus bill. Walking past a group of reporters, Boehner brought the tips of his forefinger and thumb together to form a zero, indicating with a measure of pride that not one Republican would cross party lines and vote "yea." Many of the Democrats who did, some vulnerable and under pressure from leadership and the White House, are now paying a political price.

Why rancor is the norm
So the incentive is toward partisanship. Party-line discipline is a viewed as a virtue in your U.S. House. Ask yourself: Why do you think they call the party vote-counters "whips"? Rancor is nothing new. Promises of procedural and systemic reform, put forward by Pelosi in 2006 and now by Boehner, have thus far have turned out to be unattainable at best and a canard at worst. And bipartisanship? A chimera that in the end only serves to raise expectations to unattainable levels and disappoint those who believed in the promise to begin with.

So what does any of this mean for 2011? The last time, when the House (and Senate) were infused with conservative firebrands and the White House occupied by a Democrat, was 1995. The immediate result was two government shutdowns, maneuvering and tantrums, a president compelled to remind the world that the Constitution made him relevant to the process, and to declare that the era of big government was over.

This time, a Republican-led House would try to significantly alter Obama's agenda on issues like immigration, energy, taxes, and education. Divided government could deepen partisan divisions over the next two years on those and other issues.

But some who have seen it before think that conditions might be ripe for compromise. "When you have Republicans in Congress and a Democrat in the White House running for reelection in two years, both of them have a need to show the public that they can get the job done. Not just in fighting and scoring political points," says Don Baer, who served as President Clinton's communication director at the height of the Republican Revolution.

Republicans took the blame for the shutdowns, especially after Newt Gingrich implied that it happened out of personal pique. He and other GOP leaders were asked to ride in the back of Air Force One as part of the American delegation to the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin, an arrangement Gingrich perceived as a presidential snub.

It can get better
But it did get better, eventually. With a seat at Gingrich's leadership table, Republicans take their share of credit for welfare reform -- a twice-vetoed measure that President Clinton eventually signed -- and a balanced budget. Both were the result of hard-fought compromise.

"I think the main thing that Republicans learned in 1995 is that governing is hard," says former GOP Rep. Bob Walker, a close Gingrich confidant. "It's one thing to stand on the outside and criticize; it's another thing to have to win every day in the Congress and to actually move legislation."

But actually moving legislation means compromise, and compromise is bound to anger the bases of each party. Liberal resentment toward Bill Clinton still lingers for his "triangulating" approach to governing -- casting Democrats as a hurdle to overcome, not an ally to fight alongside. For their part, conservatives are likely to fight any accommodation made with Obama.

And, of course, there's the Machiavellian notion, shared privately by many Hill Democrats, that the Obama White House wouldn't mind seeing them lose control of the House. Bill Clinton himself recently said that a GOP takeover would have a political upside for President Obama, giving him a foil going into 2012.

"I think it would increase his chances of being re-elected," Clinton said on CBS's "Face the Nation," adding, "Whether it would be good for the country or not, I don't know."

'Change' elections were always part of the Founders' plans
One last word: First Read counts more than 100 House seats in play, all about but 10 currently occupied by Democrats. That's a lot, historically speaking. But there are 435 seats in the House. Even if all 100-odd switch, it's still less than a quarter of the chamber.

"The House of Representatives is so constituted as to support in the members an habitual recollection of their dependence on the people," the framers wrote Federalist papers, in support of biennial elections to the House proposed in the newly written Constitution.

"Before the sentiments impressed on their minds by the mode of their elevation can be effaced by the exercise of power, they will be compelled to anticipate the moment when their power is to cease, when their exercise of it is to be reviewed, and when they must descend to the level from which they were raised."

Whether it is Democrats or Republicans surfing a wave, "change" elections were all part of the plan.