The Push and Pull of the House:
With the end of two years of unified Democratic control, 2023 brings a return to a divided Congress. This division takes the form of a Democrat-controlled Senate and a Republican-controlled House, each with their own distinct policy priorities. Tensions are expected to rise as both sides grapple over crucial legislation such as the debt ceiling, government funding, and agriculture policy.
Given the lack of common ground between the two parties, each majority has announced its intention to focus on what can be achieved independently. The Senate Democrats have pledged to push for the appointment of judges, while the House Republicans have outlined a strategy for monitoring the Biden administration.
What the House Wants:
The House Republicans have made it evident that they intend to undertake a thorough examination of the actions and decisions of various officials within the Biden administration. Their focus will be directed towards particular individuals, including Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, whom they accuse of exacerbating the border security crisis. Conservative lawmakers have even hinted at the possibility of impeachment proceedings, alleging that Mayorkas has not taken adequate measures to deter migrants at the border.
In a press conference last winter, now-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) stated, “If Secretary Mayorkas does not resign, House Republicans will investigate every order, every action, and every failure to determine whether we can begin an impeachment inquiry.” It is important, however, to note that any impeachment proceedings against Mayorkas would primarily serve as a symbol and messaging tactic rather than a realistic outcome. With the Democratic-controlled Senate, it is unlikely that Mayorkas would be removed from office. Instead, any investigation or impeachment trial would function as a means of keeping the issue of border security in the public eye in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election.
Other areas of investigation that House Republicans have identified as key targets include the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Attorney General Merrick Garland's handling of the Justice Department, and the business dealings of Biden's son Hunter Biden. While Congress is limited in its ability to take tangible action, as lawmakers are unable to bring criminal charges, they can recommend that the Department of Justice bring charges or draw negative attention to the administration, which could be politically advantageous in the run-up to the presidential election.
What the Senate Wants:
As the newly-elected Democrat-controlled Senate begins its term, one of its primary objectives will be to continue the appointment of judges who align with their party's values. This follows the precedent set by Republicans during the Trump administration, who made significant strides in stacking the courts with conservative-leaning judges. According to progressive group Demand Justice, there are currently 69 judicial vacancies without a nominee and 44 nominees pending confirmation.
President Biden has already seen a record number of judges confirmed during his first two years in office, surpassing the more than 80 judges confirmed in Trump's first two years. This includes one Supreme Court justice, 28 circuit court judges, and 68 district court judges. Furthermore, Biden's nominations have also included a more diverse slate of nominees, featuring a higher concentration of women of color and public defenders. Democrats aim to continue this trend and expedite the confirmation process in the new term.
In terms of Senate procedure, Democrats are likely to maintain Committee majorities, which would aid in the swift advancement of judges, even in the case of tie Committee votes. The Senate's 50-50 split has meant that tie votes have required a more time-consuming procedure to advance to the floor. With the possibility of a one-seat majority, Democrats would have more influence over Committee procedure.
Beyond judicial nominees, there are a plethora of policies that Democrats were unable to pass in the previous term that they hope to revive in the new term. One such proposal is a bill that would enable banks to work with marijuana retailers in states where marijuana has been legalized. This bill has also received bipartisan support in the House, making it a more viable option. Another issue that fell by the wayside in the previous term is immigration reform, which lawmakers hope to revisit in the new term.
The White House has also announced its intentions to push an economic agenda in 2023, which is likely to encounter significant challenges in a split Congress. This agenda centers on reducing child care and elder care costs for families, with the aim of boosting workforce participation. Other policies such as an expanded child tax credit that Democrats have been unable to pass during their tenure may also come up again, although they are expected to face significant obstacles in a Republican-controlled House.
Where the House and Senate Will Clash:
The upcoming term of Congress is set to be marked by a series of clashes between the House and the Senate over must-pass bills. These include the debt ceiling, government funding, and the farm bill, all of which are crucial for maintaining the functioning of the US government. House Republicans are likely to use these opportunities to make demands in exchange for their support.
The debt ceiling, which lawmakers will have to raise in 2023, is a contentious issue that has the potential to cause economic collapse if not addressed. Republicans have traditionally been willing to risk defaulting on the debt ceiling, using Democrats' fear of financial catastrophe to extract spending cuts. There are already indications that Republicans may employ this strategy again, with GOP leaders signaling their willingness to make demands in exchange for their support.
Government funding bills are another potential point of contention, with Republicans keen to reduce spending on social programs. If Congress fails to pass spending bills by October 1, the government risks a shutdown that furloughs workers and delays key services.
The farm bill, which is typically renewed every five years, is another opportunity for House Republicans to extract concessions. This legislation authorizes many of the Agriculture Department's programs, including SNAP. In the past, conservative lawmakers have withheld their support for the farm bill, using it as leverage to push for other policy changes.
Finding a Common Ground:
With a split Congress, the likelihood of passing more ambitious legislation, such as the American Rescue Plan or the Inflation Reduction Act, is greatly reduced. However, there are still some areas where both parties have expressed interest in collaborating.
One such area is permitting reform, which aims to speed up federal permit approvals for both fossil fuel and clean energy projects. House Republicans have cited this issue as part of their legislative agenda, arguing that the government is hindering innovation and business. Democrats, on the other hand, have suggested that reforms are necessary to quickly put funding from green energy proposals and legislation like the infrastructure bill to use. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has also made permitting reform one of his chief priorities, in order to approve the Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline in his home state of West Virginia.
In the past, permitting reform has failed due to objections from progressives regarding the guaranteed approval of the pipeline and attempts to curtail community feedback on new energy projects. Republicans, while also interested in permitting reform, largely opposed the measure because they were not interested in granting Manchin a victory. The two chambers may attempt to work on a compromise next year, though some of the same outstanding issues may arise again.
Immigration reform and foreign policy are other areas where there could be more bipartisan collaboration. The CHIPS Act, which is designed to invest in US supply chains to better compete against countries like China, was among the bipartisan packages that passed this past year. House Republicans have indicated that they will focus on scrutinizing the Chinese government, which could draw support from Democrats.
Additionally, support for Ukraine in light of the Russian invasion has had bipartisan backing thus far and could continue to do so.
Despite these challenges, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer expressed optimism at a December press briefing, "I intend to reach out both in the Senate, and even in the House to some of the more mainstream Republicans, and say, ‘let’s work together.’”