Lost in the political world's focus on what will happen in tomorrow's midterm election is the fact that no matter what the exact result, Congress is likely to get a whole lot more combative -- and a whole lot less productive.
Depending on your point of view, that could be a good thing or a bad thing. But either way, get ready for two years of partisan gridlock.
With Republicans set to win seats in the House and the Senate -- likely outright control of the former and possibly even the latter, too -- the Democrats' solid majority on Capitol Hill seems certain to become a thing of the past. And with it, analysts say, their ability to pass sweeping legislation such as the health care act and the Wall Street reform bill.
"All the various political scenarios after Tuesday's election are equally slow and grinding," said Julian Zelizer, a professor and congressional expert at Princeton University. "If Democrats keep control of Congress, their margins will be very narrow and the Senate will only become more difficult to govern because the majority will be much smaller. If Republicans take control of Congress, that will make for real gridlock because if you have Congress divided with the White House's position, there will be very little possibility for agreement on any of the major issues."
In recent days both parties have used the prospect of such a deadlock as a means of encouraging voters to support them on Tuesday. Democrats have implored voters that a stalemate would dash any of their big plans for the next two years, while Republicans have said it would boost their chances of taking back the White House in 2012.
"If we lose in the House or in the Senate, we're now in a position where we are in a stalemate and this thing is just going to go in reverse and our most powerful weapon will be a veto pen, and that's bad," warned Vice President Biden at a fundraiser last week in New York City.
Across the political aisle the Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell, told National Journal magazine that "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."
Analysts: Government Shutdown Possible
Instead of spending the next two years fighting Democrats' attempts to push big-ticket items such as immigration reform and a climate change bill, Republicans could stop those efforts dead in their tracks with a mid-term victory. The GOP could then work on its own priorities of cutting spending, downsizing government, and trying to repeal the President's new health care law.
Ultimately, analysts say neither party's big plans are likely to take shape. The more realistic scenario, they forecast, is a stalemate.
"I don't expect much in the way of major new legislation," said Randall Strahan, professor of political science at Emory University. "There's going to be an effort to move more conservative legislation in the House, but it will be very difficult for it to get through the Senate and then for the President to sign it."
"Even keeping the government running may be a challenge," he cautioned.
However, the top House Republican, John Boehner, has said a shutdown is not the GOP's goal.
"Our goal is to cut the size of government, not to shut it down," Boehner told National Journal in an interview.
Even if a full-on shutdown is not in the cards, a legislative freeze does seem likely. According to Zelizer, Republicans and Democrats will have to scale back any grand policy efforts. Instead, they will have to focus more on piecemeal legislation rather than large, sweeping bills.
"At best, they're just going to try to find some small policies where they might be able to get some type of political compromise," Zelizer said. "You try to micro-manage legislation and break things apart, try to find something that might get through at this point."
But in a town as fiercely divided along party lines as Washington, that could be slim pickings.
Ultimately, according to Zelizer, the next two years in Congress will likely be far less about legislating and far more about campaigning for the White House in 2012.
"Everyone will be thinking about 2012," he predicted.