Politics

A Split 116th Congress: Dems Are ‘Completely in 2020 Mode’

'When you win a majority, the base expects certain things' — here's what's likely to consume Pelosi and McConnell for next two years

Image Credit: Zach Gibson/Alex Wong/Getty Images

Washington, D.C., could soon be stuck in political gridlock as a result of the recent midterm elections, which split congressional control. But there is still hope of a bipartisan path forward.

Democrats came into the race hoping to win both congressional chambers overwhelmingly in what they repeatedly referred to as a blue wave. Yet the eventual result was far more bittersweet after voters cast their ballots on Election Day, November 5. Senate Republicans were able to maintain their majority while the House flipped to Democratic control.

The political division raises questions about what the next two years will look like when the 116th Congress convenes on Jan. 3, 2019.

The leadership of both parties have said they hope to find areas in which they can work together, such as criminal justice reform and infrastructure even as the contentious political climate threatens gridlock.

“What is the strategy of Democrats going to be in the House?” David Winston, president of the political research firm The Winston Group, said to LifeZette. “Are they going to try to figure out areas of common ground, try to work through that and build up a governing type of dynamic, in terms of some accomplishments to get on the board — or [will they] basically to be in constant [conflict] with Republicans?”

Related: McConnell Hopes for Bipartisanship After Losing House

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How things unfold and the strategy the Democrats use will depend a great deal on the leadership itself, said Winston. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is considered the likely choice as speaker, given her past experience in the role — even as she continues to face some resistance from the more progressive wing of her party.

“There is the whole dynamic of what will happen when they get to the speaker vote,” Winston said. “There’s been a lot of focus on that for obvious reasons, so the strategies the relevant conferences have is something they’ll start working through when everyone gets back.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) responded to the midterm loss the day after by saying he hoped to find bipartisan ground to work with Democrats; he mentioned infrastructure as one possible area. Pelosi also tried to strike a moderate tone, even taking the impeachment of President Donald Trump off the table as a focus.

“I think there is a chance they could move on criminal justice,” Tim Chapman, executive director for the conservative Heritage Action, told LifeZette. “But I think that [runs into] a lot more trouble in the Senate than people realize right now. So we’ll see.”

He added, “McConnell has said he is willing to move on it. But I think the longer it stays out there as an issue, the more people will have skepticism toward it. So I don’t know whether that goes anywhere. I don’t think they’ll be able to do an infrastructure bill that Pelosi likes and that the president would sign.”

Chapman also sees the strong possibility of contentious fights around immigration, health care and tax reform. President Trump achieved his biggest legislative victory last year when Republicans were able to pass an overhaul of the tax code known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The GOP has worked since to build upon that success.

“I don’t think you’ll see a lot of appetite on the part of Democrats to pass legislation through the Senate and have the president sign it,” Chapman also said. “Right now the Democrats are completely in 2020 mode. I think we’re more likely to see lots of subpoenas, investigations and potential impeachment — that type of activity.”

Related: Pelosi Sees Wave of Endorsements Even as Opposition Ramps Up

Chapman added that by investigating and subpoenaing the president, Democrats can tie up the administration in a compliance battle — which would divert resources and become a huge headache.

“Then we’re probably going to see a raft of messaging bills that Democrats will put across the House floor,” Chapman said.

“These will be things that show off Democrat priorities and values but are probably dead on arrival in the Senate and [things] the president would never sign. It’s a political game. They’ll be revving up their base through their investigations and subpoenas.”

Pelosi, essentially, will be stuck between a rock and a hard place if she does eventually reclaim the speaker role. She has to appeal to the more progressive members of her caucus who are floating ideas such as investigating the president. But she also has to connect with moderate members and actually try to legislate.

“When you win a majority, the base expects certain things — but for the people who gave you the majority, [they’re] the ones you’re going to have to figure out where they can go back to their constituents and say they got the things they wanted as well,” Winston said. “There are a lot of complex elements here. They are probably considering a variety of different strategies.”

“The administration will be able to do anti-regulatory stuff unilaterally through agency moves. The economy generally will be somewhat unaltered by the gridlock in Congress.”

During his decade working for Republican leadership, Winston saw that balancing act play out firsthand; he served as director of planning for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) for a time. Eventually he launched his own strategic planning and survey research firm, The Winston Group, in Washington, D.C.

For Chapman’s part, he said the Senate “becomes basically a judge factory for the next two years. They’re going to turn nominations out of there. And the big question for me is whether the Senate will, in addition to that, begin to legislate and try to showcase some of the more conservative pieces of legislation going into 2020. That is an open question.”

Related: Republican Kevin McCarthy Wins House Minority Leader Seat

Republicans, during their two years of a congressional majority and with a Republican in the White House as well, were able to get a lot done. The GOP’s tax cuts and deregulatory efforts have been expansive and arguably are contributing to the strengthening economy. While a split Congress might cause gridlock, that doesn’t mean it will reverse what’s been accomplished.

“It was great that they got the tax cut done through Congress,” Chapman said. “They really needed [that] to get the economy booming. And the administration will be able to do anti-regulatory stuff unilaterally through agency moves. The economy generally will be somewhat unaltered by the gridlock in Congress,” he added. “There might be things that happen that are baked into the economic system anyway, good or bad. But it’s not going to be the result of [what] Congress [does]. The gridlock just puts the economy on autopilot, toward where it was already going.”

Some of the other leadership roles have been decided already, of course: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was able to win the minority leader position on November 14. And McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) are continuing their leadership roles on the Senate side.

For more on the 2018 midterms, check out this video:

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