Capitol in limbo over unfinished midterms

With results for Senate, House races not yet in, lawmakers are on hold.

By Carl Hulse | The New York Times

WASHINGTON >> An air of suspense hung over the Capitol on Thursday. It was combined with an air of uncertainty. Also, an air of “What the heck is going on?”

Two days after the polls closed in a consequential and highly anticipated midterm election, Congress was in a state of suspended animation, with nobody sure which party would be in charge of the House and Senate come January as ballots across the country continued to be tallied.

Top lawmakers who are rarely at a loss for something to say or a plan to execute instead waited anxiously for results from key states in the West. And waited. And waited some more.

Even Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who raised and strategically invested more than $300 million over the past few months in a bid to secure enough Republican seats to make him majority leader next year, was in the dark about the fate of his effort.

“Like all of you, I’m just watching and waiting for them to finish counting votes,” said McConnell, never one to give much away, as he was surrounded by reporters upon arrival at his Capitol office. But with the outcome in doubt, there was little for him to do there but binge watch cable news and badger his political experts for hard information.

The marble hallways were mostly quiet, free of the post-election jockeying for cameras and celebratory news conferences by the victors that usually follow fast on the heels of Election Day. There was nothing much definitive to say yet, with control of the Senate still very much up for grabs and dozens of House races that could shift the balance of power still uncalled.

It was somewhat reminiscent of the days immediately after the 2000 presidential election, when all eyes were on Florida and Americans waited not so patiently for the answer to the simple question of who would be the next president — though this time without the hanging chads, the Brooks Brothers riot or the Supreme Court intervention.

At least not yet.

In this case, voters just wanted to hear whether Democrats or Republicans would be in control of the House and Senate — if control is even a word that can be applied given what are certain to be razor-thin congressional majorities in any eventuality. It is traditionally pretty clear the morning after the voting ends, and the winners rush to the Capitol to crow publicly about their victories and their plans for the future.

This year, the outcome remained unclear, without the final results from Colorado, California, Arizona and Nevada, among other places. Congressional leaders have maintained low profiles until they can be sure of the outcome. Victory laps have not been taken.

One thing that was knowable, however, was that Republicans and analysts had underestimated Democratic strength going into Tuesday. Republicans believed that with gas prices so high, Democrats would have nothing left in the tank, predicting their side would run up the score in both chambers of Congress.

But with about three dozen House races still undecided, the Nancy Pelosi-led House Democrats still had a mathematical — if implausible — path to holding the majority, an outcome that would defy all laws of political gravity.

Falling short of that, Democrats seemed on track to retain more than 200 House seats — asymbolic threshold — and leave Republicans with a slight and probably unmanageable majority that could drive its leaders mad. The House races still in play were sufficient to swing the majority either way, although Republicans had a clear advantage.

In the Senate, Democrats had a chance to gain a seat if the results in Arizona, Nevada and a Georgia runoff go their way. The mere suggestion of Democrats adding to their bare majority had drawn eye rolls when Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., for now the majority leader, dared mention it before the election.

Republicans could still secure both majorities, but on Thursday in Washington, it somehow felt as if they had lost, given the sky-high expectations they had set.

Members of his party, said Rep. Fred Upton, a retiring Republican from Michigan, “had their fingers crossed, but they were broken instead.”

The uncertainty did not stop the political maneuvering.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who aspires to be speaker, was trying to nail down the votes for the job, even without a guarantee that the position would become vacant. He announced the formation of transition teams “to ensure that a Republican majority is ready to get to work for the American people on Day 1,” according to a news release.

He was not the only person trying to get a jump on things. Although she was trailing in her House race back in Alaska, Sarah Palin, the former governor and vice-presidential candidate, announced she was traveling to Washington to meet with potential conservative colleagues and had named an acting chief of staff for an office she might never have.

With Sen. Mark Kelly holding a substantial lead over his Republican opponent, Blake Masters, in the ongoing Arizona count, both parties were focused on the tally in Nevada in the race between Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the incumbent Democrat, and her

Republican challenger, Adam Laxalt. Hundreds of thousands of ballots were still to be counted in those two states.

If both Kelly and Cortez Masto triumph, Democrats will be assured of maintaining the 50-50 majority they hold now by virtue of the tie-breaking power of Vice President Kamala Harris.  That would make the Dec. 6 Georgia runoff between Sen. Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker a battle over a potential 51st Democratic seat. If Republicans could win Nevada and Arizona, they would take the majority regardless of the outcome in Georgia and could end up with a 52 to 48 majority if they swept all three.

But if Republicans and Democrats split Nevada and Arizona, the Georgia race would once again become a cage match for the Senate majority.

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