American politics are likely to be as wild in 2023 and 2024 as we have ever seen, and given the last seven or eight years, that’s really saying something. With the country so narrowly divided, even slight changes in support can tip races for the House, the Senate, and the presidency in a way that’s rarely happened before.
First, look at how close the House is. The 117th and 118th Congresses, both with a 222-213 partisan divide (albeit in favor of Democrats in this Congress and in Republicans’ favor starting in January), are just the fourth and fifth Congresses since the start of the Civil War in which the House is this narrowly divided. Two years ago, Republicans came within 31,751 votes, scattered across five congressional districts, of capturing a House majority. This year, as Jacob Rubashkin first pointed out in Inside Elections with Nathan Gonzales, Republicans took the House by a much narrower margin than most realize—just 6,350 votes spread across five districts.
Like the House, the Senate is historically tight. The current and upcoming Congresses are just the 10th and 11th since the direct election of senators began in 1914 in which we’ve seen a partisan split of two seats or less. Two years ago, Sen. Raphael Warnock’s 93,272-vote win over incumbent Kelly Loeffler in one January Georgia runoff got Democrats from 48 to 49 seats. Sen Jon Ossoff got them to 50 seats with his 54,944-vote win over David Perdue the same night in the other runoff, allowing newly sworn-in Vice President Kamala Harris to break ties in favor of Democrats.
This year, Democrat John Fetterman’s pickup of a Republican-held Pennsylvania seat ticked Democrats up to a 51-seat majority. But the closest race in the country on both a raw-vote and a percentage basis was in Nevada, where Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto successfully fended off a challenge from former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt by just 14,278 votes (48.9 to 48.0 percent). Once again, in a country of 332 million people, an incredibly tiny number of voters determined control of the Senate.
Stepping into this breach would be tough for any speaker of the House.
Heading into Christmas, it is anything but clear whether current House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy will be elected the 55th speaker on Jan. 3. Actually, one wonders whether anyone can muster a majority of the members of the House who are present and voting anytime soon. It has been exactly 100 years since a speaker’s race has gone beyond a first ballot. You can almost depend on it now. Today, McCarthy’s odds look to be about 50-50, but after that, does any individual have more than a single-digit-percentage chance?
McCarthy’s challenge is akin to threading a needle in a moving car. To his right he is buffeted by a large element of the 45 or so members of the conservative Freedom Caucus, with the mob led by five “Never Kevin” members: Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Ralph Norman of South Carolina, Matt Rosendale of Montana, and Bob Good of Virginia. Not all members of the Freedom Caucus will oppose McCarthy; in fact, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has been a vocal advocate of his cause, presumably because he has pledged to restore her committee assignments, or even improve them. But opposition by even a fifth of the Freedom Caucus could cost him the job.
Between McCarthy and the political center lies the more moderate group of members constituting the Republican Governance Group (formerly the Tuesday Group). Many are not that big on the idea of a Speaker McCarthy but understand that he is the best they can realistically expect. On Monday, McCarthy’s team released statements from 54 members and members-elect backing him.
Whoever ends up on top is going to have to walk a very narrow tightrope between those factions, with no margin for error. House Republicans are also conducting a parallel fight over restoring the motion to vacate the chair. Advocates say the move would make the speaker more accountable to the caucus; critics say it basically makes the speaker a hostage on a daily basis.
Unless House Republicans reach outside of the chamber to elect a speaker and go with someone who has already held the top post before, anyone besides McCarthy would be a complete rookie at that level. Let’s just say that for the next two years, the House is more likely to look like a train wreck than a well-oiled and highly functioning machine.
Because Republican bills will likely hit a brick wall in the form of President Biden in the White House and a Chuck Schumer-led Democratic Senate, look for the House to use its oversight and subpoena powers to conduct opposition research on Biden, his family, and his administration. Harassment will be the order of the day, the better to make life as miserable for Biden and Senate Democrats as possible and maximize the GOP’s chances of having a better 2024 than they had in 2020 and 2022.
On the Democratic side, expectations will remain low for incoming House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, not the worst circumstances for on-the-job training. For Schumer, though, this is the time when he has to not only step up and assume Democrats’ alpha-dog leadership role that Speaker Nancy Pelosi has occupied for the better part of 20 years, but also defend the majority with a 2024 map that is very ugly. Democrats must defend 23 seats to just 10 for Republicans. Seven Democratic seats are up in states that Donald Trump carried at least once (three that he won twice), while no Republicans are up in states that either Biden or Hillary Clinton carried. Pushing through as many Senate nominations as possible, along with must-pass legislation, will be all that most anyone can expect.
The article was originally published for the National Journal on December 19, 2022.
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