Most pundits give Republicans better than even odds of winning control of the House in the November elections (Ken's latest predictions are here). The last time the GOP took back the majority in the House, in 1994, it was after a record 40 years out of power. This time, if Republicans win, it will break only a four-year hiatus.
Their fairly fresh memories of losing power — and, more important, the fact that Barack Obama will remain in the White House and his fellow Democrats could very well maintain a smaller Senate majority — may temper some of the ambitions of House Republicans.
Sharing power in government will mean sharing responsibility for what happens or does not happen. Voting in stalwart opposition to Obama's priorities has been their strategy not just during the campaign season but since he became president.
The big test they'll face, should they win, is whether to learn to work with the president or to continue attacking him all the way up to the 2012 elections. And, of course, Obama will have to adjust to his party losing control over part of the government as well.
To get a sense of how House Republicans may be expected to act in the majority, we spoke to two political scientists who have studied the GOP caucus carefully. William F. Connelly Jr., who teaches at Washington and Lee University, and John J. Pitney Jr., who teaches at Claremont McKenna College, co-authored a book about the House GOP's long years in the minority (Congress' Permanent Minority? Republicans in the U.S. House) and have since written about the GOP's time in power.
Question: How would House Republicans returning to power differ from the "Republican Revolution" class back in 1994? Today's party certainly seemed to want to evoke memories of the 1994 "Contract With America" with last week's campaign platform, the "Pledge to America."
Pitney: "The big difference is that they have experience in governing. In 1994, no Republican had ever served in the majority, except the party switchers. Some hadn't been born the last time Republicans held the majority.
"This time, memories of the majority — and losing the majority — are just a few years old. Nonetheless, they will have a large influx of newcomers whose constituencies might be pressing for very dramatic action."
Connelly: "Once they gain some governing responsibility, they'd better be attentive to the promises they've made to a very attentive constituency right now, the Tea Party movement. Clearly, the 'Pledge to America' is an appeal to the Tea Party movement and the Tea Party is going to be watching."
Question: Will Republicans continue to oppose most of what the president wants — or, as part of the government, will they have to learn to cut deals with him?
Connelly: "On a daily or at least weekly basis, they will always be having to make decisions about whether to reach across the aisle and work with Barack Obama, or play the politics of opposition."
Pitney: "That's going to be potentially a big difference between current members and the freshmen. Older members remember what happened in 1995-96, when the government shut down (for which congressional Republicans were largely blamed), and they realize that they will have to find some areas of cooperation with the president.
"The challenge is to get the freshmen on board with that. A lot of the freshmen may be eager for an all-out confrontation with the president."
Question: Republicans tend to be a more unified caucus than the Democrats, but will they be able to hold together on votes if they only have a small majority?
Pitney: "Almost all Republicans will be broadly conservative. A major divide will come between the pragmatic conservatives and the members who are more purist."
Connelly: "As they make inroads into the Democratic majority, they'll have members who will have to be attentive to the more moderate tendencies of their districts — purple districts, if you will."
Question: How much success can the GOP have pushing through its priorities, with a Democratic Senate and Obama holding the veto pen?
Connelly: "If they lack a majority in the Senate, House Republicans clearly will not get all of the Pledge enacted. They've got to be somewhat realistic about what they need to do.
"On bill after bill, they'll have to make a decision — not just party leadership but individual members — whether they should play along with President Obama or disagree with him."
Question: How will Obama react to his party losing control of a chamber, and therefore its ability to push through his agenda?
Connelly: "Obama, too, at times will be tempted to play the politics of opposition and go on the attack (against Republicans). He's doing it already, and when they're in the majority he'll do it even more.
"He'll naturally be thinking of 2012 and whether he should sharpen the differences between the two parties. Both sides need to appeal to independents, who tend to be moderate or centrist voters. Obama will face that same dilemma."
Pitney: "This is going to be a very new experience for President Obama. He's never lost to a Republican. We'll see if he can adjust to the new reality if, in fact, the Republicans get the majority."
(Alan Greenblatt reports for NPR.org.)