The last time Republicans won control of the House of Representatives with a Democrat in the White House, the two parties clashed so ferociously that Congress nearly crashed the economy with a first-ever debt default. But with the GOP’s majority-making victory, those bitterly partisan confrontations of the Obama era might seem like halcyon days compared with what’s to come.
Republicans will assume control of the House in January, at a moment of deepening political turmoil. Trust between the parties is lower than it’s been in decades. A would-be assassin assaulted the husband of Speaker Nancy Pelosi last month. A majority of the GOP’s House conference refused to certify President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory, and party leaders have vowed to immediately disband the committee investigating the January 6 Capitol sacking that occurred just hours before that very vote. Republicans will launch their own investigations, into not only the actions of Biden’s administration but also the business and personal life of the president’s surviving son. Politically motivated impeachments of President Joe Biden and members of his Cabinet could be inevitable. “There are going to be fulsome investigations, and we will not take anything off the table,” Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, the House’s third-ranking Republican, told me before the midterm elections.
Yet Republican leaders will be presiding over a majority sure to be far smaller than they were hoping for or expecting. When I spoke to Stefanik in the run-up to Election Day, she was confident bordering on cocky. “This is going to be a historic red wave, so buckle up, Russell,” she assured me. What transpired in last week’s election was instead barely a trickle. Stunning most pundits as well as Republicans, the race for the House majority was so tight, the vote-counting took a week to make clear the GOP’s slim victory. The Republican margin in the House could be so small as to make it nearly impossible for Kevin McCarthy, who is likely but not guaranteed to become speaker, to govern.
Democrats, meanwhile, will have one last opportunity in the next six weeks to pass legislation, in a lame-duck session of Congress. After that, Biden’s progressive agenda is dead—at least for the next two years. Lacking a majority in the Senate, Republicans will have to strike deals with Biden and the Democrats just to keep the government running, let alone to make their mark on policy. Few lawmakers in either party have much hope for a grand bargain. McCarthy is more of a campaigner than a legislator, with little record of bipartisan dealmaking. He’ll have to corral a caucus that includes many Republicans who are far more loyal to former president Donald Trump than to him; some of them, such as Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, began making demands for more power weeks before the election and are sure to reject any hint of compromise with a president they consider illegitimate. “Governance will be a challenge,” Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma told me. “Everything over the next two years will have to be a deal of some bipartisan agreement. Achieving those always creates some frustration on the two wings of the political spectrum, because you can’t have absolute victories.”
Cole, a 20-year House veteran long allied with the Republican leadership, sounded a more optimistic note about the incoming majority. Compared with the Tea Party class of 2010, which helped the GOP capture the House during Barack Obama’s first term, he noted, this batch of newly elected Republicans is more diverse in terms of race, gender, and ideology. Many of them represent districts that Biden won, and more of them have previous legislative experience, which could lead to more pragmatism. “I would hope that we don’t fall into the trap that I would argue the Democrats fell into [under Trump] and turn ourselves into the impeachment caucus,” Cole said.
That might all prove to be wishful thinking. Although Biden struck several significant bipartisan deals during his first two years, most of those were with Senate Republicans, and they passed over the objections of House GOP leaders, including McCarthy. Many House Republicans seem focused on investigating over legislating. The next two years will also play out against the backdrop of the 2024 presidential campaign, and now that Trump is running again, he will likely oppose any agreement that Republicans hammer out with the incumbent. Stefanik evinced little interest in bipartisanship when I spoke with her, insisting that Republicans would dictate the terms of the policy debate. “We’re going to pass good legislation and send it to the president’s desk, and he’s going to have to choose [if] you work with us or not,” she told me.
The first major test for House Republicans may come over the same issue that defined their confrontations with Obama a decade ago: the debt ceiling. McCarthy and other Republicans have already said they will again try to use the required lifting of the nation’s borrowing limit as leverage to force fiscal restraint. Fearing the economic fallout from another round of brinkmanship, Democrats have begun talking about raising the debt ceiling—or eliminating it altogether—in the lame-duck session, before Republicans formally take power. The GOP would surely criticize Democrats for such a move, but many in the party might quietly accept it as a gift. “That,” Cole conceded, “would make it easier.”
As for what Republicans actually want to do with their newly acquired power, Stefanik pointed to the “Commitment to America” agenda that McCarthy unveiled in September. It’s a broad-brush list of priorities that is light on legislative detail. The GOP wants to lower inflation, fight crime, and secure the border. But absent good-faith negotiations with Democrats, any bills they pass won’t become law. An effort to tackle border security, for example, could be an invitation to reengage in talks over a larger immigration-reform package of the kind sought by the two parties for decades. Again, Stefanik wasn’t interested: “You have to secure the border before you even talk about broader visa reforms.”
Such a response could become familiar over the next two years. Republicans are coming to Washington not to legislate or to govern, but to fight. That’s one promise, at least, the new House majority should find easy to fulfill.