Working with a divided Congress

Wednesday night’s presidential debate is a huge news story because it could do much to decide who will win on Election Day. 

The first debate, which is focused on domestic policy, will likely tackle healthcare, taxes, Medicare and government regulations. President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) might detail their policies, but let’s hope they do more than that. 

Both candidates should describe how they would convince Congress to pass their agendas. No matter who wins in November, the president will have to work with a divided Congress. The House is expected to stay in the GOP’s hands, and while control of the Senate is uncertain, it is clear that neither party will have a filibuster-proof majority in the upper chamber. 

So either Obama or Romney will need to work on a bipartisan basis to pass major legislation soon after they are elected. The winner will have little time to celebrate, as he will be faced with thorny questions on the deficit, the nation’s debt ceiling, sequestration, Medicare reimbursements for physicians and the expiring Bush tax rates. 

In 2009 and 2010, Obama passed the stimulus and his healthcare law without any Republican backing. Following the 2010 election, he and the GOP-led House engaged in several high-profile showdowns on funding the government, the debt ceiling and the payroll tax cut. 

Deals were struck on all those issues, but negotiations were ugly. Approval ratings for both Obama and the Congress took a deserved hit, and lingering acrimony is prompting concern that policymakers will get little done in the lame-duck session or next year. 

It is unclear that Obama’s strained relationships with Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerThe two-party system is dying — let’s put it out of its misery One year later, neither party can get past last year's election White House strikes back at Bushes over legacy MORE (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell expects Paul to return to Senate next week Former Hill staff calls for mandatory harassment training Gaming the odds of any GOP tax bill getting signed into law MORE (R-Ky.) can be repaired. 

Republicans in Congress hope that won’t matter because Obama will be packing his bags this fall, but most must be thinking about what they’ll do in the event of a Romney loss. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), for example, told The Washington Post last month that taxes will go up should Obama win reelection. But if that is to mean more than the sunset of the prevailing rates under current law, it would mean Republicans having to go along with the president. 

Romney has suggested he would work with Congress better than Obama, noting that the Massachusetts Legislature was overwhelmingly Democratic when he was governor. 

Yet it is hard to see a President Romney working closely with Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidTop Lobbyists 2017: Grass roots Boehner confronted Reid after criticism from Senate floor GOP in uncharted territory rolling back rules through resolutions MORE (Nev.), who has regularly attacked the White House hopeful this year. 

One way or another, the commander in chief next year will need to break the congressional stalemate. That will be an enormous task.