Republicans have won a slim majority in the House of Representatives while Democrats retained narrow control of the Senate after last week’s midterm elections, setting up a divided Congress that will likely struggle to get anything done.
The Associated Press, the New York Times, and other media outlets made the call Wednesday after days of watching Republicans slowly inch toward securing a House majority.
After a tense campaign defined by inflation, rhetoric about rising crime, decimation of abortion rights, and ongoing threats to democracy, voters delivered a split verdict. The election’s outcome will give Republicans leverage to force Democrats to cut spending and allow them to open investigations into President Joe Biden’s administration and his family. With control of the Senate, Democrats will still be able to confirm judicial nominees and executive appointees. But by losing the House, it will be nearly impossible for them to pass any meaningful legislation on voting rights, policing reform, abortion access, and other issues they failed to take action on when they had control of both chambers and the White House.
Here’s what five political strategists and academics told BuzzFeed News about the new political landscape.
Don’t expect compromises
In recent decades, Congress and the White House have managed to take action on shared legislative priorities in periods of divided control (think welfare reform in the 1990s and, more recently, COVID-19 pandemic relief). But that’s rare, said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University.
“Things do happen,” Binder said, “but the intensity of partisanship makes it much much harder to legislate in divided government.”
Experts expect Republicans will stop Biden and Democrats’ plans to tackle climate change, codify the right to abortion, reform policing, protect transgender youth, and fight voter suppression. They will also likely shut down any continued investigation from the House Jan. 6 Committee as well as any examination of the impacts of the climate crisis. But simply shutting things down won’t be enough to prove that Republicans can govern; GOP strategist John Feehery said they may throw bills at Biden that they know he won’t sign as they try to make their case to potential 2024 voters.
“They're going to, on many levels, try to just put the Biden administration on the defensive and show their base that they’re fighting on behalf of them,” said Feehery, a lobbyist who spent 15 years working in the House Republican leadership.
Republicans could subject the agencies Biden is relying on to carry out his agenda to lengthy investigations and oversight hearings. They could also add provisions to appropriations bills to stop spending on certain kinds of regulations and activities, like measures to fight climate change.
“They're going to take a meat axe to environmental programs, they’re going to be very tough on immigration, and because they're very adept at this, they’re going to try to make the lives of every Democrat they can find miserable,” Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic strategist and publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book.
“What that accomplishes is it feeds their fans, right? It reinforces their hardcore base,” Sragow said. “[It] doesn't necessarily have a lot of impact on swing voters, but the other thing it does is distract the Democrats.”
There’s also been talk among some House Republicans of impeaching Biden, but experts said it doesn’t make much sense politically for them to do that.
“If you impeach him [and] if you succeed, then theoretically you have Kamala Harris as president, which nobody wants,” Feehery said. “I just find that to be kind of stupid, myself.”
Meanwhile in the Senate, the Democrats should be able to continue confirming Biden’s nominees for the federal bench to further the president’s efforts to create a more diverse judiciary. And if an opening on the Supreme Court arises, they could fill the spot with a more liberal justice on the conservative-majority court.
Biden will still have the final word on any federal abortion legislation
After the Supreme Court’s June 24 ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, Democrats sounded the alarm as Republican-led states began banning abortion. But at the federal level, strategists and academics said it’s unclear what a Republican-majority House would do on the issue; any attempts to enact a national ban would be soundly rejected by Senate Democrats and Biden.
“As long as there's a Democrat in the White House, I think it's unlikely you're going to get significant conservative action on abortion,” said Eric Schickler, a political science professor and codirector of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. “That's the kind of issue Biden would stand firm on using the veto, and also the need for 60 votes in the Senate would make it really hard to pass anything.”
After previously saying the issue should be decided by the states, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham introduced a bill in September that would prohibit abortions in the US at 15 weeks of pregnancy. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy previously said he would back a national 15-week ban, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has repeatedly shot down the idea, saying the issue should be left to the states.
“McConnell doesn't want to do anything on abortion,” said Feehery, the Republican strategist. “He is dead set against the Lindsey Graham bill.”
What’s more likely for now is that Republicans in the House push to prevent any federal funding for abortions, he added. They could do this by making permanent the Hyde Amendment, a longtime budgetary provision that prohibits the use of federal dollars for the procedure. Biden, a previously staunch supporter of the provision, had vowed to repeal it during his presidential campaign but was forced to sign a $1.5 trillion spending bill last spring that included it.
“The Republicans could try to tighten the screws on abortion, but that’s an interesting question for them,” Sragow said. “In light of the Supreme Court ruling, you could make the argument that they’ve accomplished what they want to accomplish and that they can now turn their attention to other issues.”
At the same time, Sragow said, he could see Republicans try to restrict abortion to keep Democrats from focusing on issues that impact more Americans’ daily lives, like well-paying jobs, safe neighborhoods, and good schools for their kids.
“The more that the Democrats talk about abortion, the more they’re not talking about the day-to-day issues that voters are concerned about,” Sragow said. “I’m not saying abortion is not a very, very important issue. I’m saying it’s not what most voters make up their minds about.”
Republicans could push for big cuts to critical programs
Though it was not a main focus of the 2022 campaign, the biggest issue looming over Congress right now is the anticipated fight over raising the debt ceiling. The US government is expected to hit the limit on how much money it can borrow as soon as early 2023. If Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling, the government could run out of money, default on its debts, and shut down.
“That’s the single biggest thing that affects everybody’s lives,” said Wendy Schiller, director of the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy at Brown University. “It affects everybody's retirement, it affects Social Security, it affects every bond issued by the federal government.”
In recent years, Republicans have fought against increasing the maximum amount the government can borrow and used impending defaults to force Democrats to cut spending.
“They come back to the table and say, ‘OK, we won't default the country, but you have to cut $85 billion from the budget,’” Schiller said. “So I think Republicans will continue to use that tool, and they use it effectively.”
The Democrats could try to limit Republicans’ ability to leverage steep spending cuts by raising the debt ceiling before the new Congress takes over, Schickler, the UC Berkeley professor, said. The Washington Post reported last month that the likely leaders in the Republican-controlled House are planning to demand cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and clean energy spending.
“After two years of irresponsible spending by Democrats driving historic inflation, American families can’t afford for us to not have a serious debate about government spending,” Rep. Adrian Smith, a Republican from Nebraska, told the Post.
Speaking to reporters at the White House the day after the election, Biden said he was prepared to make compromises in order to work with House Republicans, but he said “under no circumstances” would he support cuts to Social Security or Medicare.
“I have a pen that can veto,” Biden said. “I don’t have to recalibrate whether or not we’re going to continue to fund the infrastructure bill or we’re going to continue to fund the environment.”
He added that he believes there is “growing pressure” on the parties “to work out their substantive differences” and not shut down ideas just because it would benefit the other side.
“I’m hopeful that Kevin [McCarthy] and I can work out a modus vivendi of how we’ll proceed with one another,” Biden said.
Whatever Trump does, he’ll continue to be a distraction
The new balance of power in Congress will help define how Biden is viewed going into the 2024 presidential election. Without control of the House, he will look wounded as he and Senate Democrats fight with House Republicans and struggle to make progress on their campaign promises, Sragow said. But each party will also be able to run on the argument that if they had total control of the government, they could do a lot more.
“Ironically for Biden, having a Republican House as a foil is not necessarily a bad thing because [he] really won't be blamed for not getting much done,” Schickler said, “and he’ll be able to point to the things that he’s stopping from happening and that might happen if Republicans get unified control in 2025.”
For former president Donald Trump, who announced on Tuesday that he will run in 2024, the GOP’s wins in the House could embolden him, even though a good number of candidates he backed lost, leaving Republicans with a much slimmer majority than they had anticipated. As the results rolled in on election night, Trump said if Republicans did well he should get “all the credit,” but if they lost he shouldn’t be “blamed at all.”
“Donald Trump is an incredible distraction, and he’ll continue to be an incredible distraction,” Sragow said, “but at the end of the day, what he does or doesn’t do and what the consequences are of his running or not running, nobody really knows.”