What Divided Government Means for Washington

Republicans’ narrow control of the House of Representatives will usher in a return to divided government in Washington next year, likely shattering the chances of any major legislation, stoking divisions within the GOP and putting President Biden on defense as the new Congress investigates his administration.

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Mr. Biden, who downsized his agenda to get bills through a Congress narrowly controlled by Democrats, will now have to contend with House Republicans who have said they plan to pressure him to cut government spending and make other policy changes by threatening to withhold votes to keep the government open or to ensure that the U.S. meets its debt obligations.

The extent of their leverage will likely be limited by Republicans’ performance in the midterms, which fell far short of the blowout many in the party had predicted. The GOP has won enough seats to capture the House majority, the Associated Press said. But supporters of former President Donald Trump and congressional leaders were already blaming each other for the smaller-than-expected margin, a possible sign of divisions to come.

Legislating will likely grind to a near halt, including some bills that once saw bipartisan support but have recently drawn skepticism from Republicans, such as assistance for Ukraine in defending itself against Russia. Republicans will get to push a competing agenda if they can hold their caucus together on key priorities—a daunting task with such a small majority.

“Everybody’s relevant, nobody’s irrelevant,” said Rep. Thomas Massie (R., Ky.). When asked what the razor-thin majority would look like, he said: “Go ask Joe Manchin,” referring to the centrist Democrat who is a key swing vote in the Senate.

Republican leaders say their plans include boosting border security, restricting abortion, encouraging more pay for police and reversing Democrats’ plans to expand the Internal Revenue Service. They will also use their oversight authority to investigate the Biden administration and the president’s family.

“A new Republican House is going to view its mandate as to stop the Biden administration, and I don’t see a whole lot of opportunities for them to necessarily work together,” said Brendan Buck, who worked for Paul Ryan and John Boehner when they were GOP House speakers.

Democrats won a crucial victory in Nevada to retain their hold on the Senate, regardless of the outcome of a coming runoff in the Georgia Senate race. The Democrats’ slim majority in the Senate means a priority for the party in the next two years will be confirming Mr. Biden’s nominees for judges and positions in the executive branch.

Meanwhile, the 2024 presidential campaign is kicking off, with Mr. Trump on Tuesday announcing another run for president.

Several of Mr. Trump’s endorsed candidates lost key races, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is seen as a potential challenger to Mr. Trump for the GOP presidential nomination, won easily. The shadow primary could deepen divisions within the House GOP’s narrow majority between Mr. Trump’s loyalists and those ready to move on.

Mr. Biden said after the midterms that it remains his intention to run again but said he wasn’t in a hurry, adding that he expected to make a decision by early next year. Democrats’ performance in the midterms could help Mr. Biden fend off any potential primary challengers as he makes his final decision.

Still, more voters disapproved than approved of the job being done by the president, and more than half of the electorate thinks Mr. Biden, 79 years old, lacks “the mental capacity to effectively serve as president,” according to preliminary results from a poll of more than 94,000 registered voters for The Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press and Fox News.

The midterm results add Mr. Biden to the list of U.S. presidents who lost House majorities roughly two years after they took office, but unlike his immediate predecessors, Mr. Biden staved off heavy losses.

Former President Barack Obama—who in 2010 lost more than 60 seats and control of the House and saw Democrats’ Senate majority narrowed by six seats—called the outcome a shellacking. Mr. Trump responded to his party’s setback in 2018—when Republicans lost more than 40 seats in the House and the majority—with a defiant, nearly 90-minute press conference. Congressional probes followed both elections; Mr. Trump was impeached twice and acquitted twice in the Senate.

After wrangling members of their own parties to pass some priorities in the first two years of their presidencies, Messrs. Obama and Trump turned to executive authority after the midterms, as Mr. Biden is expected to do. Mr. Biden and Democrats would likely block most Republican proposals. Overriding a veto requires a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate.

Republicans say they could use must-pass bills to push for spending cuts and other priorities, threatening government shutdowns, but it could be difficult to unite the conference around a strategy. The government was shut down in 2013 under Mr. Obama, when some Republicans pushed to repeal Obamacare as part of a spending package. A spending fight between Congress and the Trump administration after the 2018 midterms turned into the longest shutdown in U.S. history.

Generally in shutdowns, government employees miss paychecks, but essential government functions remain open. They haven’t significantly affected economic output, but a prolonged stalemate can affect the stock market. They can have a negative effect politically as polls in recent years have shown voters disapprove of shutdowns.

“When you’ve got divided government, you have the tools that you have at your disposal, and walking away from those tools is dereliction of duty,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R., Texas). “You’re not going to pass grand bipartisan bills to save America.”

Mr. Biden said at a press conference recently that voters don’t want constant political fighting and that he plans to invite leaders of both parties to the White House in the coming weeks.

“I’m prepared to work with my Republican colleagues,” he said. “The American people made clear, I think, that they expect Republicans to be prepared to work with me as well.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.)—who is favored to become speaker in the new Congress, though he faces an uphill climb in securing the needed votes—has pointed to legislation to raise the federal debt ceiling as an opportunity to push for spending cuts. In 2011, a standoff with the GOP-controlled House over the debt ceiling sent stocks plunging, leading to Standard & Poor’s decision to downgrade the U.S. credit rating for the first time.

Mr. McCarthy has said the House GOP wouldn’t write a blank check for aid to Ukraine, and he has said House Republicans will try to undo legislation that gave the IRS $80 billion to hire tens of thousands of workers, audit more high-income Americans, improve taxpayer service and implement better technology.

Many GOP lawmakers have signed on to a proposed federal abortion ban at 15 weeks of pregnancy, which Democrats campaigned against ahead of the midterms. Early results show the issue helped Democrats win in many races. A survey compiled by the Associated Press found that 10% of those who voted called it the most important issue.

“On the debt limit, on funding the government, on Ukraine, on a whole host of issues, every piece of legislation is going to be about trying to get it across the finish line with someone having a problem that they need to contend with,” said Ron Bonjean, a former senior House GOP aide. “It’s going to be legislative quicksand for the next couple of years.”

Although there is little appetite for major bipartisan bills, there could be support from both parties for narrow bills dealing with regulations on cryptocurrency, tech companies and China, some lawmakers and aides said.

Separate from the legislative jockeying, House Republicans are preparing broad investigations of the Biden administration, including scrutiny of the president’s handling of the southern border. The U.S. Border Patrol arrested a record 2.2 million people caught crossing the southern border illegally in the past year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Lawmakers have also said they would look into the U.S.’s chaotic troop withdrawal from Afghanistan; the origins of the Covid-19 virus and pandemic policies; and the foreign business dealings of Mr. Biden’s son Hunter Biden. Both Bidens have denied wrongdoing. The younger Mr. Biden has said the Justice Department is investigating whether he paid his taxes.

They could also look into the Justice Department’s operations under Attorney General Merrick Garland, who infuriated many GOP lawmakers when he authorized the application for a warrant to seize records with classified material that Mr. Trump took to his home in Florida. The search was part of an investigation into possible mishandling of classified information as well as violations of laws governing retention of presidential records. Mr. Trump has called the probe an effort by Democrats to undermine him.

The White House bolstered its legal team over the summer, hiring Washington defense lawyer Richard Sauber and Ian Sams, who was a spokesman for Vice President Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign. That group is expected to grow ahead of the new Congress, according to people familiar with the planning.

Top Republicans have played down the possibility of impeaching Mr. Biden, but rank-and-file members, who would likely have more power in a narrow House majority, have called for such a move. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R., Ga.) has introduced articles of impeachment against Mr. Biden.

During the Obama administration, Republicans dug into the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, and a government loan guarantee to the failed solar company Solyndra.

Click here to read the full article in the Wall Street Journal


  1. All it really means is it’s a lot harder for the communist fascist racist democrats to raise our taxes while spending like ignorant morons, and harder to pass communist laws and policies that we’ll have to comply to….but they won’t have to!!!!

  2. Better divided than totally in the hands of the incompetent.

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