WASHINGTON — Divided government is on the verge of returning to Washington, and it’s likely to mean one thing: a healthy dose of chaos.
Although midterm election results are still being tabulated, Republicans are poised to at least capture control of the House, albeit narrowly. That would give them a power center from which to challenge President Biden and the Democrats, with the likelihood of a slew of investigations and protracted fights over essential legislation, all as both parties position themselves for the 2024 election in the current hyper-partisan environment.
“Funding the government and raising the debt limit are going to be very rocky,” predicted Brendan Buck, a former top communications aide to Republican House speakers Paul Ryan and John Boehner, citing two must-pass items that are perennial points of conflict between the parties. “High likelihood of government shutdowns and probably significant trouble raising the debt limit.”
If the House flips, control of the Senate will matter in terms of who has the better leverage in Washington’s legislative triangulation. Should the Senate stay under Democratic control, Biden would have two of three seats at the table in negotiations and the ability to set the agenda in one chamber of Congress. But if Republicans also were to win the Senate, Biden’s muscle would shrink and Republicans would control the entire legislative process.
Still, the president’s party losing just one chamber is enough to dramatically change how Washington functions — or doesn’t. And with a Republican House majority likely to be slim, and a fractious collection of GOP lawmakers that includes brash conservatives pressuring leaders for a partisan wish list, must-pass bills are certain to trigger some messy fights.
Outside of those types of bills, there probably would be little actual lawmaking. Republicans could pass bills on their priorities to send messages to their supporters and force Democrats to take tough votes. But Biden will be waiting to veto them if they even make it through the Senate.
The vast majority of Republican energy will instead go into using their oversight authorities on every committee in Congress to take the Biden administration to task and highlight their agenda, likely with a heavy emphasis on agencies such as the IRS and Department of Homeland Security. When Democrats took the House majority after the 2018 midterms, they launched multiple investigations of the Trump administration, as Republicans did of the Obama administration after flipping the House in 2010.
The intense congressional oversight could stymie the Biden administration’s ability to flex executive action, said Blake Androff, a communications strategist who worked for Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and in the Obama administration. As the Biden administration seeks to implement its major legislative successes such as the infrastructure law, constant congressional requests could slow them down, he noted.
“Republicans can use their oversight authorities to trip up the administration, because the thing they want to do is make sure they don’t give the administration any other wins in the next two years,” Androff said. “If you’re spending half of your time responding to oversight requests and spend your time up on the Hill testifying, it’s hard to implement bills.”
The balancing act for Republicans will be to avoid going too far, especially with a stated desire among many GOP lawmakers to investigate Biden’s troubled son Hunter, and some of the party’s firebrands even calling for impeachment quests.
In a post-election press conference, Biden was quick to try to establish himself as the one willing to negotiate.
“I’m prepared to work with my Republican colleagues,” Biden said. “The American people have made clear, I think, that they expect Republicans to be prepared to work with me as well.”
Asked about the prospect of investigations, Biden laughed it off.
“Lots of luck in your senior year, as my coach used to say,” Biden joked. “I think the American people will look at all of that for what it is. It’s almost comedy. . . All I can do is try to make life better for the American people.”
Republicans, meanwhile, say the public has made clear it wants them to serve as a check on the Biden presidency.
“The solace for Republican voters is we now finally have speed bumps,” said Sam Geduldig, a top GOP lobbyist.
Although House Republicans would have a thin majority, he noted that the likely new speaker, Kevin McCarthy of California, will control what legislation gets a vote, “and that means no more reckless spending and policies from the Biden administration”
Geduldig acknowledges the process won’t always be smooth, including possibly some government shutdowns as Republicans push for spending cuts and policy positions that Democrats will reject.
“We’re going to touch the third rail a couple of times,” Geduldig said.
But there’s risk in forcing a government shutdown. Republicans have forced them in the past, including in 1995 and 1996 after winning control of Congress, 2013, and in 2018, all of which ended up boosting Democrats.
The coming storm raises the stakes for a lame duck session of Congress starting next week under continued Democratic control. Government funding under a short-term deal struck before the election runs out in mid-December, while the nation will hit its debt limit next year.
“The right answer to that is to lift the debt ceiling during the lame duck, so we can guarantee there’s no hostage-taking,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
If Democratic and Republican leaders can reach a longer-term deal on government funding and raise the debt limit this year, they would clear the deck for the incoming Congress arriving in January and push off any brinkmanship until late 2023. Such a deal will come down to the Senate, where a handful of the more bipartisan Republicans are retiring and will be replaced by more firebrand conservatives.
McCarthy, the current House Republican leader, will face another test in the coming weeks as he works to secure the votes needed to become speaker.
If the Republican majority ends up being fewer than 10 seats, which is a distinct possibility, a handful of members could withhold their support in exchange for demands. The hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus already has begun positioning itself to do that. Few expect McCarthy to ultimately fall short. But the concessions the group extracts, such as restoring the ability of the House to remove the speaker at any time with a majority vote, could lead to more chaos by increasing their leverage over McCarthy to pursue an extreme agenda or face constant challenges to his leadership.
“These jobs are ultimately impossible at the end of the day,” Buck said of being House speaker. “It’s like an hourglass, your time is always drifting away. It’s just how long can you keep the peace. . . . I don’t see him being dumped in six months like a lot of people suggest, but ultimately keeping all of these people happy is a completely impossible job.”
Democrats, meanwhile, will be content to let that trouble proceed.
Arizona Representative Ruben Gallego said his party would be smart to feature its young stars to deliver the Democratic message in the Republicans’ televised investigative hearings, and then just get out of the way.
“I don’t think we have to make trouble for Republicans. They’re going to do it for themselves. We just have to stick together,“ Gallego said. “Ever heard the saying ‘never catch a falling knife’? This is it.”
Jess Bidgood of the Globe staff contributed to this report.