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What will Congress do if Republicans control the Senate?

The U.S. Capitol building on August 1, 2011 in Washington, D.C.

Mark Wilson, Getty Images

If Republicans win control of the Senate this Nov. 4, President Obama can surely forget about pursuing some of his key agenda items, like raising the federal minimum wage--he's acknowledged as much himself.

What's less clear, however, is what the Senate agenda would look like with Republicans in the majority.

"There is a great likelihood that I will be the majority leader in the Senate next year," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said in a recent debate against his Democratic opponent, noting that "the majority leader gets to set the agenda."

And at the top of his to-do list: stopping Mr. Obama's plans. "The biggest problem we've got is this Obama jobs-killing agenda that my opponent supports," he said.

McConnell has already spent the last six years doing just that, all while lambasting the Democratic-led Senate for getting nothing done. Republicans may soon have to decide what, if anything, they want to accomplish should they control Congress. The more moderate faction could find itself hampered by the Tea Party wing.

"The nexus of the conflict is between those handful of Republicans that are anxious to try and put some points on the board legislatively versus the take-no-prisoner crowd that dominates the caucus," Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, told CBS News.

The 2016 election will exert more pressure choose a side, to veer to the right or to the center, noted William Hoagland, a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Hoagland previously served as budget director for the Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

Another focal point is the electoral map itself. In 2016, there will be as many as 23 Republicans in the Senate up for re-election, compared to just 15 this year, while Democrats will only be defending 10 seats. To win, Senate Republicans are going to have to run on more than opposition to the president. "Given the criticisms they've given Congress for not getting anything done, the pressure will be to moderate some of their conservative stances and get something done by passing legislation," Hoagland told CBS News.

At the same time, he noted, "In about six months we'll be in presidential politics, and the Rubios and the Ryans of the world...who might have some presidential ambition will play a harder line" on certain issues.

If the GOP continues to take a hard line against the Democrats' agenda, it is hard to imagine much will get done in the senate over the next two years under a Republican majority. Republicans are projected to win just one or two seats more than Democrats, meaning the president's party could block most legislation with a filibuster. Republicans will need to reach across the aisle for at least some Democratic support, as Democrats have done with the GOP in the past six years.

That means much of next year's congressional agenda would comprise smaller, more incremental accomplishments that could win bipartisan support. That might include repealing the Medical Device Tax from the Affordable Care Act, a tax that's unpopular with both Republicans and Democrats. Congress could also decide to cooperate with Mr. Obama on issues like infrastructure spending.

"If they work in that vein, that will send a very good signal and improve their image with the American people," Hoagland said.

Though Mr. Obama's approval rating hovers around the 40-percent mark, low for a president, Congress fares even worse with the American people. An August CBS News poll found that just 15 percent of adults approve of the job their lawmakers are doing.

It's also likely that cooler heads will prevail as lawmakers pass appropriations bills and fashion a budget next year. That budget is likely to include so-called "reconciliation" instructions that would allow Congress to pass certain budget-related measures with a simple 51-vote majority (in other words, those measures wouldn't be subject to Democratic filibusters).

With Republicans in control of both chambers, Hoagland said it's doubtful the party would try to pass the sort of ideologically-driven budget that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, has put forward in the past. Part of the reason the House passed the Ryan bill, Hoagland said, was that "they knew it wouldn't go anywhere in the Senate."

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle should be motivated to tackle fiscal issues together to avoid certain pitfalls. For instance, Congress will need to raise the debt limit once again around mid-March to prevent a default on the nation's debt.

Much as both Democrats and Republicans might agree broadly on legislative imperatives like the need for reforming the tax code, it is unlikely that they can come to an agreement on the details for both corporate and individual tax reform. One without the other isn't really an option. Hoagland suggested that pursuing corporate tax reform without individual tax reform "might not play very well with the American public."

As for immigration reform, Hispanic voters are pressuring Republicans to take some action ahead of 2016. Still, Manley predicted a GOP backlash against any executive actions Mr. Obama takes on this issue. "Immigration's not going to be able to get done until 2017 at the earliest," he said.