Last week’s Senate runoff victory in Georgia gave Republicans a small bright spot after their devastating electoral setbacks.

But there is probably more bravado than reality in Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ claim that his triumph will ensure a “balance of government” when President-elect Barack Obama take office.

The claim stems from the fact that, without Georgia and the unresolved Senate race in Minnesota, the Democrats remain two seats short of the 60 needed to prevent procedural roadblocks by a united minority.

But the political climate and economic crisis will make it far harder for Mr. Obama’s opponents to employ the obstructionist tactics they used so successfully when Democrats enjoyed only a modest margin the past two years and the GOP held the White House.

Even Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is talking more of using the GOP’s 41 seats to influence the new president’s course, rather than block it. In fact, all signs are that the Democrats have enough votes to help Mr. Obama pass both a massive economic stimulus package and the energy and health insurance measures he pledged in the campaign.

In the House, a Democratic majority of nearly 260 members should enable the new administration to prevail consistently, even if it occasionally loses some of the more conservative Democrats.

And while Senate rules permit greater resistance, reality suggests it won’t be that easy. A main reason is that the 41 or 42 GOP senators include hard-line conservatives from heavily Republican states in the South and moderates from predominantly Democratic states in the Northeast.

At least for the first year or two, it seems unlikely that moderates like Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, Ohio’s George Voinovich, Minnesota’s Norm Coleman and Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter would try to prevent votes on major Obama proposals and nominations.

Other Republicans – such as Texas’ Kay Bailey Hutchison and, more importantly, Arizona’s John McCain – are likely to reflect public disdain for seeking political gain with confrontational tactics.

Interestingly, Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the only remaining major GOP officeholder in a state once solidly Republican, has seconded the Democratic call for a large-scale stimulus program.

It’s no coincidence that he’s up for re-election in 2010.

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama has shrewdly tapped into the public mood by stressing repeatedly the need to reach across party lines. Other presidents have done so before, only to fall victim to excessive partisanship on their side or from their opposition. This time, the political fallout from such tactics might be more severe.

The question is how long Mr. Obama can benefit from such a mood. Traditionally, presidents are lucky if their honeymoons last until the August congressional recess of their first year.

Democratic pollster Peter Hart conducted a recent focus group for the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center among “swing” voters who backed Mr. Obama. Results suggest the economic crisis may give him more time.

These voters, Mr. Hart concluded, “recognize the mess he is inheriting, and their expectations are reasonable and not excessive. The judgments about him are more likely to be based on the way he approaches the problems and not by instantaneous results.”

Ultimately, the natural political order will reassert itself. Mr. Obama’s public support may fade; Republicans will seek ways to revive their fortunes.

By the time he enters his third year in 2011, he may need 60 Senate votes more than now. But while the opposition party usually rebounds in the next midterm election, more 2010 Senate races loom on Democratic than Republican turf.

Sen. John Cornyn, the new chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, will have his hands full trying to stem the Democratic tide, especially if Mr. Obama retains popular support.

Until then, Tuesday’s GOP victory in Georgia seems likely to be seen as more significant in underscoring the party’s hold on Dixie than in erecting a barrier to the new administration.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News.


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