Elections Leave Congress Divided, Further from Compromise

Anyone hoping that the next Congress will usher in a new era of civility, compromise and functionality will probably be disappointed.

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David J. Phillip / AP

Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Ted Cruz thanks the crowd during a victory speech as he is joined on stage by his wife Heidi, right, in Houston, Nov. 6, 2012.

Paralyzed by partisanship, the 112th session of Congress was one of the least productive in history. Barring an extraordinary lame duck session, it punted on almost everything from tax reform and deficit reduction to routine legislation like the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind education law. And anyone hoping that the next Congress will usher in a new era of civility, compromise and functionality will probably be disappointed. After Tuesday’s election, the new majorities are meaner, if not leaner, than ever.

Democrats are expected to pick up a Senate seat or two (Montana and North Dakota are still too close to call) and Republicans will likely gain a few seats (12 House races remain undecided), but control of both chambers will remain the same. The 2012 down-ballot elections culled some of the few moderates remaining in Congress, while many outspoken partisans rode to victory. Alan Grayson, the liberal firebrand from Florida who lost reelection in 2010, is back. This is a guy who called Republicans “foot-dragging, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals who know nothing but ‘no.’” Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman who campaigned for President on an uncompromising conservative platform, will also return to Washington. Republican candidates such as Florida’s Trey Radel and North Carolina’s Robert Pittenger–dubbed “Tea Party hardliners” by Cook Political Report–sailed to victory. There are also winners like Democrat Elizabeth Warren. Though the new Senator-elect from Massachusetts is hardly Alan Grayson, she is more partisan than her defeated opponent Scott Brown, a Republican who had to be moderate to survive in blue Massachusetts.

Partisanship drove some Democrat-friendly Republicans to abandon Washington before the election. Three-term Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe announced her retirement in February, citing the increasing pervasiveness of “‘my way or the highway’ ideologies.” In July, Ohio Rep. Steven LaTourette, a close ally of House Speak Rep. John Boehner, felt the “toll” of partisanship had become too much. The nine-term congressman said the process “no longer encouraged the finding of common ground” and that compromise had become “a dirty word.” So he would be retiring, too.

There are legislators who said they’re retiring for other reasons, but their absence will nonetheless strike a blow to Congress’s thin center. Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, the Senate’s most conservative Democrat, will be gone, succeeded by Tea Party darling Deb Fischer. He tells TIME that Congress is “being pulled by the extremes, the ideologues.” The seat of Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison will be filled by a more conservative politician, former state Solicitor General Ted Cruz. Hutchison supported the 2008 bank bailout and has sided with Democrats on women’s issues and education. Cruz, backed by super-conservative group Club for Growth, is also a Tea Party favorite who once said his view on compromise “is exactly the same as Ronald Reagan’s. President Reagan said, ‘What do you do if they offer you half a loaf? Answer: you take it and then you come back for more.’”

Some moderates did not go willingly this year. When Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar lost his Republican primary to State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, he wrote a treatise about how his downfall symbolized the dysfunction of our political system. Lugar said his opponent—more recently famous for saying “God intended” pregnancies that are the result of rape—had promised “reflexive votes for a rejectionist orthodoxy.” On a broader scale, he wrote, “an increasing number of legislators in both parties who have adopted an unrelenting partisan viewpoint.” Mourdock ended up losing the race.

Blue Dogs, fiscally conservative Democrats whose numbers were halved in the 2010 midterms, will be even fewer in the next Congress. After redistricting, Pennsylvania Rep. Jason Altmire lost his primary to Democratic Rep. Mark Critz, who in turn lost the race to Keith Rothfus, another Club for Growth candidate. “The American people want us to work together to find common ground. But Congress is populated almost entirely of partisans who are simply incapable of working together,” Altmire tells TIME in an email. “Candidates get no political benefit from working with the other side. In primaries, partisans will punish centrists by voting for more ideologically extreme challengers.” As of Election Day, 24 Democrats were listed as members of the Blue Dog Coalition. After primary losses, retirements and Tuesday night’s losses, only 14 of them will return. Yet one did have a high-profile victory: Indiana Rep. Joe Donnelly was the candidate who beat out Mourdock for Lugar’s Senate seat in Indiana.

Nelson mainly blames division in Congress on extremists and special interest groups, but voters, he says, also bear some responsibility. While voters elected some extreme candidates this year, they also showed some taste for moderation. Maine’s Sen. Snowe will be replaced by another moderate, Independent Angus King, who is expected to caucus with the Democrats. Missourians reelected Sen. Claire McCaskill rather than Rep. Todd Akin, who punctured his campaign with a comment about “legitimate rape.” And Illinois voters ousted Rep. Joe Walsh, a Tea Party firebrand.

Still, activists such as Amy Kremer, a Texan and chairman of the Tea Party Express, are hopeful that Republicans will stand their ground. “I don’t think we should be so focused on … the act of compromise,” she says. “We should be focused on what’s best for America.” Such sentiments do not bode well for legislative progress in the 113th Congress.