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What Will Congress Do With A Republican Majority?


President Obama and the soon-to-be Republican majority leader of the U.S. Senate both promised today to try to work together. That comes after a resounding victory for Republicans in the midterm elections. It was a second coat of shellac for the president, whose low approval ratings cast a long shadow over his fellow Democrats.

NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now from the White House. And, Scott, President Obama famously use that word, shellacking, four years ago when Democrats lost control of the House in another midterm election. What's he saying now that his party has lost the Senate, too?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Well, he congratulated Republicans on what he called their good night, Robert, and he said the American people have sent a clear message that they're tired of dysfunction in Washington. As president, Obama said he bears unique responsibility for that. But he didn't offer any specific promise of change - no big staff shakeup at the White House and no big course correction.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Every election is a moment for reflection, and I think that everybody in this White House is going to look and say, all right, what do we need to do differently? But the principles that we're fighting for, the things that motivate me every single day and motivate my staff every day, those things aren't going to change.

HORSLEY: The president noted, for example, that some of the policies he's advocated, like a higher minimum, actually fared better in yesterday's election than the members of his party did.

SIEGEL: Now, Republicans will soon have the majority in the Senate, but not a veto-proof majority. Does that mean that we're in for two more years of gridlock?

HORSLEY: That's certainly one possible outcome. Some conservatives do want to take a hard line against the president with more investigations, more brinksmanship. But the president and the incoming majority leader both struck a more conciliatory tone today. Here's Mitch McConnell.


SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: The American people have spoken. They've given us divided government. The question for both the president and for the speaker and myself and our members is, what are you going to do with it? And I've already said, I want to first look for areas that we can agree on, and there probably are some. And that's what we're going to be talking about in the next few weeks.

HORSLEY: McConnell cited tax reform and trade deals as two areas where his party and the president might find common ground. Obama has invited McConnell and other leaders to the White House on Friday to talk. He even joked about getting a drink with McConnell. The president said he'd enjoy having some Kentucky bourbon about now.

SIEGEL: Scott, the new all-Republican-led Congress will be seated in January, but we've got to get through the lame-duck session first. So what do we expect from Democrats in the next couple of months while they still have some leverage in the Senate?

HORSLEY: Well, Obama wants the Congress to pass a spending bill to keep the government's doors open past December. And they'll also be talking about a new war resolution to deal with ISIL, and the president has promised to use his own executive powers before year's end to make changes to the immigration system, changes he was not able to get through Congress.

Now, that could quickly extinguish the happy campfire that we've been sitting around today. McConnell likened that to waving a red flag in front of a bull, but Obama insists he's not going to wait. We could also see a new nominee for attorney general during the lame-duck session before Senate Democrats lose their majority and confirmation becomes that much harder.

SIEGEL: Taking a step back, President Obama has now won the White House twice. But both of those victories have been followed two years later by a very powerful backlash. What does that mean for the legacy of Barack Obama?

HORSLEY: Well, one thing to keep in mind, this is not terribly unusual. Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush - all faced opposition congresses during their last years in office, and some of them still managed to be productive during that time. Of course, before long, we're going to have the 2016 presidential race, and that's going to suck a lot of oxygen out of the air here. But even if he's labeled a lame-duck, Obama insists he's not going to be treading water.


OBAMA: The one thing I'm pretty confident about, Jim, is I'm going to be busy for the next two years. And the one thing that I want the American people to be confident about is that every day I'm going to be filling up my time trying to figure out how I can make their lives better.

HORSLEY: But he's also going to have to deal with Republicans filling up their time trying to chip away at some of his signature accomplishments, including the health care law and his regulatory effort to combat climate change.

SIEGEL: OK, Scott, thank you.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Scott Horsley at the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.