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If Clinton wins, congressional obstruction likely; impeachment, not so much

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, left, accompanied by retired Pittsburgh Steelers Mel Blount, right, takes the stage at a rally at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Friday, Nov. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

At a rally for Hillary Clinton Thursday, President Barack Obama dedicated an extended riff in his speech to convincing voters that they need to support Democrats for the House and Senate for Clinton to actually be able to govern if she wins the election.

“I have confidence that Hillary will continue the progress we’ve made. She will need allies like Patrick Murphy,” Obama said. “It’s not enough to elect Hillary and stick her with a Republican Congress that behaves the way they’ve been behaving.”

Indeed, Republicans in Congress are already signaling they intend to continue behaving the way they’ve been behaving.

At least three Republican senators have floated the idea of refusing to confirm any of Clinton’s nominees for the Supreme Court if she is elected, even if that means leaving seats vacant for four years. Conservative activists at Heritage Action reportedly urged Republicans at a briefing Thursday to blockade Clinton picks.

“Senators have a sworn obligation to reject nominees who, they believe, would fail to uphold the Constitution,” two Heritage Foundation experts wrote in a National Review op-ed Thursday.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) is already talking about having material for two years’ worth of investigations before Clinton steps into the White House. Some are making plans for impeachment already, and Donald Trump has predicted a “constitutional crisis” if Clinton wins.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) are among those who have claimed Clinton already committed impeachable offenses. Some conservatives have called for impeachment proceedings to commence before Clinton takes office.

A couple of prominent Republicans have attempted to quiet the calls for impeachment for now.

"OK, I'm gonna say, be the adult in the room and say 'calm down, back off, it's not gonna happen,'" Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) said in a radio interview Wednesday.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said Tuesday that talk of impeachment is “premature,” adding that Clinton is unlikely to face criminal charges unless the FBI finds significant new evidence against her.

Democrats have expressed outrage at Republicans already openly plotting to undermine a Clinton presidency before votes are cast.

“How does our democracy function like that?” Obama asked at a Clinton event Wednesday.

“In addition to there being no grounds for impeachment to begin with, moving to impeach President Hillary Clinton for alleged activities from before the election would be a brazen attempt to nullify the vote of the American people, outside our constitutional framework and destructive to the Framers’ intent,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said in a statement.

“I think it’s unpatriotic, and I think it’s dangerous,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) told Sinclair Thursday. “I don’t think people realize when they say things like that or when we have a candidate who says the elections are rigged – it takes away from the confidence of the people. You have to have people believing in their democracy. You have to have people believe that their vote counts.”

Cummings also blasted Republicans for hinting that they would not allow Clinton nominees on the Supreme Court. Their rationale for refusing to hold hearings for Obama nominee Merrick Garland was that voters should have their say and let the next president nominate Justice Antonin Scalia’s replacement.

“To me, it’s like a hijacking of our democracy,” Cummings said. “It’s my firm belief that acts like this that’s blocking, not giving a vote on Supreme Court justices is unpatriotic, unfair and unconstitutional. We’re just a better nation than that.”

Republicans up for reelection this month have not seen the kind of negative consequences Democrats and pundits predicted for their obstruction of Garland, and the virulent anti-Clinton sentiment in the GOP base suggests there may not be much political downside to standing in Clinton’s way either.

Experts say Clinton’s ability to govern would be severely constrained if Republicans adopted a firm adversarial stance against her agenda, but their threats of impeachment are probably empty.

It seems almost certain the GOP will retain its majority in the House, and Democratic hopes of retaking the Senate are slipping. Even if Democrats come out of the election with a slim majority in the Senate, it would not be enough to overcome Republican filibusters.

“If Republicans control both chambers and Clinton wins, I think that very little legislation is going to happen,” said Jennifer Nicoll Victor, an associate professor of political science at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

The language Republicans use to talk about Hillary Clinton now is very reminiscent of how they spoke of her husband in the mid-1990s when they engaged in constant warfare with his White House.

“In some ways, maybe we should expect to have that again,” Victor said.

At the same time, Republicans might seek a better relationship with the executive branch than they had with Obama or with Bill Clinton. Hillary Clinton has shown an ability work across the aisle in the past, albeit in a different political climate.

“Thinking about when Clinton was a senator, the people who tout her and her political skill often talk about her interpersonal relatability,” Victor said.

While diehard Republicans may still be chanting to lock Clinton up in January, the average voter will probably be willing to give her a chance to lead.

“She may have a short honeymoon, but she’s going to have a honeymoon with some people,” said Bob Mann, a former Senate press secretary and a professor at Louisiana State University.

Moderate Republican senators may object to extreme measures like blocking her Supreme Court nominees or completely grinding the wheels of government to a halt.

“Maybe I’m being totally naïve, but I think that politically they don’t have as much to gain from being seen as the perpetrators of the gridlock,” Mann said.

Prospects for impeachment are low. To draft articles of impeachment and send them to the Senate, conservatives in the House would need to get Paul Ryan (R-WI) or whoever is speaker next year on board.

“That can only happen if Republicans are united that that’s the strategy they want to pursue,” Victor said.

Even then, they would need to cobble together a two-thirds majority in a nearly evenly-divided Senate to actually remove Clinton from office.

Mann said the impeachment talk is likely an attempt to sway voters by creating a cloud of suspicion and uncertainty over Clinton, and it should not necessarily be taken literally.

“I think I would discount a lot of it between now and Tuesday. If they’re still breathing fire two weeks from now, obviously it’s worth paying attention to,” he said.

If Republicans are serious, their aggressive opposition could be a gift for Clinton if this election leaves Americans as weary of bitter partisanship as polls suggest they are.

“People are going to be tired of this election….and I think they’re going to say, ‘Okay, the game is over, this is the final score. I may not like it but it’s time to move on,’” Mann said.

Republicans eventually overreached in their attacks on Bill Clinton and suffered at the polls in 1998 because of it, and history could repeat with Hillary.

“If the Clintons know nothing else, they know how to apparently play Republican members of Congress into committing suicide,” he said.

Democrats have been less transparent about their approach to a Trump White House if he wins, but there would not be much obvious incentive for them to cooperate with his more extreme proposals if he follows through with them.

“It kind of depends on the tone that President Trump would set,” Victor said, and it is impossible to predict what that would be based on his campaign rhetoric.

If Trump immediately attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and build a border wall on day one, he should expect stiff resistance from Democrats. If he comes in with more moderate changes, Democrats have a history of being open to compromise.

Given the turmoil within the Republican Party throughout the campaign over Trump’s behavior, Mann suggested he might find it easier to work with Democrats than his own party.

“I don’t believe that Trump’s relationship with these Republican congressional leaders would last more than a couple of weeks,” he said. “He doesn’t play well with others and I don’t imagine that their interests are going to be aligned for very long.”

Democratic strategist Craig Varoga said both parties need to take a step back and respect the will of voters regardless of who wins, because this preemptive talk of obstruction is exactly what is wrong with politics.

“There’s a reason why voters are so unhappy, and it’s because so little gets done because of the partisanship and refusal to compromise and work together,” he said. “If either party wants to prosper long-term, they need to stop thinking about the next election and give each other a chance to work together for a change.”

He hopes voters will reward politicians and parties that are willing to rise above partisanship instead of those who cynically promote conflict.

“Honestly, anyone who promises before this election to delegitimize the winners of next Tuesday’s election should be held accountable for putting their partisan agenda above the interests of the United States,” Varoga said.

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