The possibility of a victory by Barack Obama combined with significant congressional gains by his party could give Democrats extraordinary muscle to pursue an ambitious agenda on health care, taxes, union rights, energy and national security.
Democrats, who are within reach of the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster in the Senate, would also face high expectations, especially from the party's more liberal quarters, that could be difficult to meet even with enhanced numbers in the Senate as well as the House. And they would be at risk of overreaching, a tendency that has deeply damaged both parties in similar situations in the past.
But given the opportunity and the magnitude of the problems facing the country, Democrats said they would welcome the chance — and the potential accountability — even though winning the White House is no assurance that their initiatives would sail through Congress. And all of the issues on their agenda may be overshadowed by the need for urgent action on the deepening financial crisis.
“I think we are in enough trouble in enough areas that I would rather own it and then have to perform than continue with this back and forth, back and forth with Republicans, particularly while they are engaged in this absolute determined policy of obstruct, obstruct, obstruct,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.
Armed with polls that raise the possibility of decisive wins in House and Senate races, congressional Republicans are trying to turn the situation to their advantage, warning voters about unchecked one-party government and urging them to split their tickets to deny Democrats unfettered control. As recently as Friday, John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, issued a warning about one-party control.
That is also the premise of a recent TV advertisement supporting Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., whose seat is an integral part of the Democratic drive toward 60 votes, as she fights to hold on against Kay Hagan, a Democratic state senator.
Ominous music plays in the background as a narrator intones: “These liberals want complete control of government, in a time of crisis. All branches of government. No checks and balances. No debate. No independence. That's the truth behind Kay Hagan. If she wins, they get a blank check.”
If Obama defeats McCain, he could be the first president since Jimmy Carter to enter office with wide control of the House and 60 votes in the Senate, which in theory would give Democrats the power to overcome procedural hurdles that have bedeviled both parties in recent years.
“Whether or not the Democrats have 60 is something that is going to be a very significant factor in the way the country is governed,” said Robert Caro, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and Senate historian, referring to the number needed to cut off Senate debate and push legislation to a vote.
But even with a 60-vote majority, Democrats could face challenges in pushing their agenda, said former Vice President Walter Mondale, who had experience with such wide margins during the Carter administration and as a Democratic senator in the 1960s.
“People tend to think that if you have got 60 votes you can pass anything you want,” Mondale said. “It means you can pass a lot more. There's no question about it. But it's not a slam-dunk.” He added: “It's not just a push-button Congress. For sure, they'll have their own ideas.”
Republicans said they hoped to retain at least 41 seats in the Senate, giving them the ability to stop the legislation they find most objectionable, and still command some leverage in policy negotiations.
“I think the Senate operates best when it makes things happen in the middle, and that happens when you have 41 or more people who resist an idea to the point where you can compromise,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader and a lawmaker whose own seat is at risk. “I think there will be enough Republicans plus discerning Democrats in the Senate after January to keep a kind of far-left agenda from steamrolling through the Senate like it often does through the House.”