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The top task for Canadian politicians: Get to know the new U.S. legislators

U.S. President Barack Obama declared his policies were on the midterm ballot and he lost this referendum.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The United States' political players and their priorities shifted last week. We need to digest the changes and get to know the new players. Because Canadian interests remain the same, we also need to remember that, in the crowded American political arena, if we want something, we have to go after it.

Three observations from the exit polls stand out:

First, it was more about mood than specific issues. Two-thirds of Americans believe that their country is headed in the wrong direction. Only 20 per cent trust Washington. The Republicans cannot be cocky: The electorate likes neither their party nor their leadership.

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Second, the buck does stop at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. President Barack Obama declared his policies were on the ballot and he lost this referendum. But presidents are at a disadvantage in midterms because they measure the incumbent against themselves, rather than their adversaries. Mr. Obama fared as badly as most of his recent two-term predecessors: George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower (Bill Clinton is the exception).

Third, you win by getting out the vote. The turnout (36.4 per cent) was the lowest since 1942, but the Republicans did the better job. The GOP is now the dominant governing party in Congress and in the states. The demographics are mostly unchanged: Republicans won 60 per cent of the white vote, Democrats won 89 per cent of the black vote and 62 per cent of the Latino vote.

The results matter for Canada.

In listing their priorities, the Republican leadership included legislative approval of the Keystone XL pipeline because it means "lower energy costs for families and more jobs for American workers."

Passage of XL is not a slam-dunk. There is still an outstanding Nebraska court case to be resolved and, in the event of a presidential veto, Republicans would have to muster at least a dozen Democrat senators to achieve the two-thirds necessary for a veto override.

There is no ambiguity about where Canada stands on the XL in Washington, but we should leave the public politicking to the Republicans. Instead, we should focus on other priorities, like ensuring Canadian hydro qualifies under the renewable energy standards. In Washington, no one knows the energy and environment file better than our Ambassador, Gary Doer, armed with his formidable Rolodex.

The Republicans also promise to pass the Trade Promotion Authority that will give "up or down" congressional approval to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (the U.S. version of the Canada and European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement).

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This should galvanize efforts to conclude the TPP, assuming that the 12 partner nations are ready for the end game. It will oblige deals and concessions to achieve the high standard agreement to which all are pledged.

The key will be Japan and the United States resolving their differences on agriculture and autos. If this happens, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will face a decision on the necessary and overdue reform of supply management.

In the meantime, our legislators – federal and provincial – need to get to know the new legislators in the Congress and state houses.

When federal ministers travel south to see their counterparts, they should also meet the congressional chairs and ranking members, especially those in the Senate.

Premiers should send representatives to the gubernatorial inaugurations. Scott Walker (Wisconsin) and John Kasich (Ohio), for example, could well be 2016 GOP presidential contenders.

The premiers should develop an agenda on shared concerns – border infrastructure, securing our electrical grids and pipelines, North American supply chains, invasive species like the zebra mussels – then journey to Washington for the National Governors Association February meeting.

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The re-emergence of geopolitics – Russia's intrusion into Ukraine and Middle East turmoil – reminds us that the values that unite Canada and the United States are vastly more important than our divisions on trade. The relationship between Barack Obama and Stephen Harper is not the camaraderie enjoyed by Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan/George H.W. Bush or Jean Chrétien and Bill Clinton, but they share common cause in face of shared threats.

We have a good partner in U.S. Ambassador Bruce Heyman. Acting on the message that we were feeling ignored, he has brought to Canada Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Secretary of State John Kerry and various agency heads. Next month, a senior congressional delegation will be at the Halifax International Security Forum, one of the Harper government's smarter initiatives.

Divided government between a Republican Congress and a lame-duck Obama administration will be the norm for the next two years. But we can still get things done.

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