Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow has seen this before.
Nearly a dozen years ago when Barack Obama was president, a newly emboldened House GOP majority came to power, promising to rein in the Democratic agenda, cut spending and investigate a White House they believed had run rampant. What resulted: Years of intense feuding between the two parties and a government in gridlock as Washington careened from one potential fiscal crisis to the next.
Now, as Democrats are poised to hold a narrow Senate majority – and Republicans are expecting a razor-thin House majority of their own – lawmakers in both parties have a deeply pessimistic view over the next two years and are bracing for an ugly period of legislating in Washington.
“If Republicans in the House just intend to be the party of investigations and figuring out some reason to impeach President Biden, then they’re going to pay a price in 2024,” Stabenow said.
Added Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican from a Nebraska swing district: “I perceive that there’s a small group that is trying to put us in gridlock.”
House GOP leaders believe they were elected to stop the excesses of the Democratic agenda in the age of high inflation, fears about crime in the inner cities and problems at the US-Mexico border. And they plan to pass a series of bills on a range of issues important to their party, such as curtailing the Internal Revenue Service, ramping up security and imposing new voter ID laws – all messaging bills that will go nowhere in the Democratic-led Senate. But even passing such messaging bills will be complicated in a House run by Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican nominated by his party to be the next speaker.
With an extremely slim majority, just a handful of defections could be enough to derail their messaging bills. Making life even harder, McCarthy has vowed to end the remote voting system put in place during the pandemic – a tool that proved crucial for Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s slim majority whenever absences popped up.
So McCarthy will have to balance the demands of some 40 members on his right flank with the concerns of more than 30 Republicans who hail from swing districts that gave him the majority.
More concerning, according to more than a dozen lawmakers in both parties, is how Congress will deal with the basic necessity of government: Funding federal agencies and raising the national borrowing limit to avoid an unprecedented debt default – a perennially dicey issue in Washington that is often used as a bargaining chip and puts Congress on edge.
Many expect those must-pass issues to be used as leverage against Democrats across the Capitol and down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Rep. Brian Mast, a Florida Republican, predicted there would be a strong appetite in the GOP to use their leverage in any funding fights to boost their own priorities, such as securing the border – even if it meant shutting down the government, adding “absolutely” there’s a concern over dealing with those fiscal issues.
“Nobody’s ever really liked (government shutdowns),” Mast told CNN. “But I think you’re in a different state of play right now, where people will be, in part, pining for government shutdowns.”
Yet some hardliners are already preparing to lay the blame for any turmoil at the feet of Democrats and President Joe Biden. Rep. Bob Good, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, said that if the GOP-led House passes a spending bill that the Senate won’t take up or president won’t sign, the “consequences lie with them.”
As legislating will be difficult, the investigations in the House will take center stage. For months, House Republicans have been privately plotting their investigative roadmap – looking into everything from the botched Afghanistan withdrawal, the origins of Covid-19, border problems and the foreign business dealings of Biden’s son, Hunter.
Yet some Republicans fear that’s the wrong approach.
“I’d rather focus on helping the American people, dealing with inflation, getting better energy resources, making sure entitlements are secure going forward,” Sen. Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, told CNN. “There are a lot of high priorities, and, frankly, looking into the president’s son doesn’t strike me as one of the big priorities we ought to be focused on.”
Romney added: “I know there are some in the base that only want to fight. There are others in the country that want us to get stuff done. I happen to be in the latter category.”
One Republican lawmaker warned his party against allowing chaos to erupt on their watch.
“I may offer a hazardous activity clause to the Republican Conference rules package: No dangerous activity for the next two years,” quipped Rep. Kelly Armstrong, a North Dakota Republican. “I’m looking into ‘Armstrong For Congress’ shower mats for the whole conference. We can’t afford a slip and fall right now.”
Just as the hard-right flank is emboldened by the election results, so are moderates in both parties. To stay in power after 2024, GOP leaders will need to protect at least 15 members from districts that former President Donald Trump narrowly carried – in addition to the roughly 16 from districts Biden won in 2020.
Given the margins and that political reality, members in the middle of their respective parties feel emboldened by the midterm results.
As the reality of a razor-thin Republican House majority sank in, two lawmakers who lead a bipartisan group of Democrats and Republicans sat down for dinner to discuss a pressing issue: how to govern in what is expected to be a chaotic environment in Washington over the next two years.
GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, co-chairs of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, told CNN they discussed how their alliance could help mitigate the problems of slim margins that can empower any single member to derail the legislative process.
Fitzpatrick, who hails from a district that Biden carried by five points in 2020, will be on the speed dial of every Democrat looking for a compromise or help scuttling the GOP agenda, according to a Democratic source.
“With a narrow margin, I think you’re going to see a lot of compromise,” Fitzpatrick said. “You’re going to see compromise within the conference, and you’re going see compromise across the aisle as well.”
Gottheimer added: “That’s one of the lessons from this election. That’s why Democrats overperformed. People don’t want the extremism and the yelling. They want us to find common ground.”
Bacon, whose district Biden won by six, added: “We can’t have four or five people just saying no and shutting down the whole thing.”
McCarthy’s allies have already tried to convince moderate Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar to switch parties in hopes of padding their slim margin. Cuellar flatly rejected the idea after a competitive primary and general election in his district, but he’s already being courted by Republicans who may need his help in a narrow GOP majority.
“I’ve already talked to a whole bunch of Republicans on the floor, we only had one vote, but I stayed there for a while,” Cuellar said after a series of votes. “Well, I think we can work together on a lot of things.”
Yet cutting bipartisan deals is a recipe for a revolt on the right – as was the case as the Senate cut a slew of bipartisan deals this Congress over gun control, infrastructure and semiconductor chip production, only to be opposed by McCarthy, his leadership team and most of the House GOP Conference.
“You can’t lose anybody, right? Any one person becomes kind of an island to themselves that they get to say, ‘give me this or else that,’ ” Mast said of the new power dynamics.
GOP Rep. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota added: “It doesn’t take very many flies to spoil the broth.”
A group of far-right Republicans, namely from the Freedom Caucus, is pushing for a number of rules changes in the new Congress that could make it even more difficult to govern, such as requiring any bills that are brought to the floor to have support from the majority of the majority party. House Republicans met Wednesday to begin hashing out their rules package for the new Congress.
Notably, GOP lawmakers adopted an amendment to require a majority of the entire conference to agree on forcing a floor vote to oust a sitting speaker – something that could make it more difficult to push out McCarthy if he wins the speakership.
Members of the House Freedom Caucus wanted individual lawmakers to be able to force such a vote. The procedural weapon was wielded over former Speaker John Boehner before he eventually resigned.
Freedom Caucus member Chip Roy, who has forced numerous procedural votes to delay floor activity, including on non-controversial bills with broad bipartisan support, told CNN members should not be afraid to hold long vote series in the GOP majority.
“I’m not afraid of voting. Right? … Well, hells bells. We get sent here to vote. So everybody calm down,” Roy, a Texas Republican, said.
Other Republicans say that the far-right faction should be aware that others in the conference also hold the power.
“The Freedom Caucus is making a lot of noise, but they don’t hold all the cards,” said Rep. David Joyce, an Ohio Republican, referring to the far-right faction.
Joyce added: “It was hard to govern when we had a large majority. We have many independent agents. It’s like herding cats trying to get everybody together.”