If the historic five-day, 15-ballot floor fight to elect the House speaker is any indication, the next two years in American politics will be marked by unavoidable gridlock and vetoes, according to Steven Smith, the Kate M. Gregg Distinguished Professor of Social Science in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.
President Joe Biden and the Democrats exceeded expectations in the midterm elections, retaining control of the Senate and giving up only nine seats in the House. But losing control of the House essentially ensures that no major liberal legislation will be enacted during the second half of Biden’s first term, Smith said.
“In the House, the very conservative composition of Republicans, and the somewhat greater influence of the more radical half of the Freedom Caucus, will set up battles over must-pass bills — most prominently appropriations bills and a debt ceiling increase,” Smith said.
“Speaker McCarthy will struggle to muster a majority for his strategies on key issues. Spending bills and a debt limit increase will certainly test his ability to bargain effectively with the White House and Senate on those issues, with the renegades insisting that the House majority be willing to shut down government and generate an economic crisis to achieve their goal of radically reducing the role of the federal government in American life.”
“Brinksmanship will be built into their game plan,” Smith added.
In terms of new legislation, Smith said to expect a flurry of legislating from the Republican-controlled House that generates bills that are dead upon arrival in the Democrat-controlled Senate. In one of their first legislative acts, for example, House Republicans voted to rescind $72 billion of the $80 billion for the Internal Revenue Service included in the Inflation Reduction Act.
In the Senate, Republicans will flex their ability to filibuster to limit Democrats’ ability to pass spending and debt ceiling measures, Smith said.
“While Biden succeeded in enacting highly compromised legislation in the last Congress, his goals will be far more limited in the new Congress,” Smith said.
According to Smith, the Democrats’ game will be to force votes on popular legislation to get Republicans on the record against those measures.
“That will come fairly easy in the Senate. In the House, the Republican radicals’ insistence on a more open floor amendment process should give Democrats more of an opportunity to force amendment votes there, too, which may lead the Republican leadership to crack down on amending activity again,” Smith said.
Looking ahead to the 2024 election
If Biden runs for reelection, his proposals will set a framework for his campaign, Smith said. If he chooses not to run, congressional leaders in his party, particularly Chuck Schumer, will take a leading role and Democrats running for president will offer a variety of proposals.
“Trump will continue to be able to rally support in a segment of the electorate important to many House Republicans. His influence already is much reduced, but he will remain relevant. He can continue to create problems for Republican congressional leaders by suggesting policies and strategies that complicate their ability to set a direction,” Smith said.
“Trump’s legal problems may limit his public appearances and reduce the incentive for legislators to associate themselves with him, which, oddly, may help Republican congressional leaders lead their parties.”
In a few months, Republican presidential candidates will begin to emerge. By fall, those candidates will be defining the Republican Party image more than congressional leaders.