House Republicans will take the reins of the lower chamber in fewer than six weeks, returning to power after four years in the minority wilderness to usher in a new era of divided government heading into the 2024 presidential election.
The shift comes after two years when President Biden enjoyed Democratic control of the House and the Senate. And it will have drastic implications for the workings of Washington, setting the stage for countless clashes between the House and the administration over everything from government spending and border security to the fight against inflation and the future of Medicare and Social Security.
Republicans are also promising to focus much of their energy on investigations, including the administration’s handling of the southern border, charges of political bias at the Justice Department, and the business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter.
Here are five things to watch as the House is poised to change hands.
McCarthy will struggle with narrow majority
Republicans charged into this month’s midterms with wide eyes for big gains — Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had predicted a 60-seat flip — that would afford them a comfortable cushion for pushing legislation through the lower chamber next year.
Instead, they squeaked out a victory, and their underperformance leaves them a slim majority — just a handful of seats — and little room for error as they bring bills to the floor.
Those dynamics play to the great advantage of the far-right Freedom Caucus, the home of McCarthy’s loudest internal detractors, where members are already angling to secure a number of conservative priorities — including a balanced budget amendment and an end to U.S. funding for Ukraine — that party leaders have been reluctant to endorse.
If Republicans had scored a larger majority, GOP leaders would have been insulated from those demands. As it stands, McCarthy might be forced to consider them, even if it puts more moderate Republicans — and the GOP’s fragile majority — in danger in 2024.
“He had predicted — what? — 60 seats? If you don’t perform the way you told people, people question it. They didn’t get exactly what they wanted,” said a former leadership aide. “A tight margin makes it very difficult.”
McCarthy is also likely to face conservative pressure in the coming battles to fund the government and lift the debt ceiling — the same debates that had fueled the Tea Party movement more than a decade ago and have created headaches for GOP leaders ever since.
“When you look at John Boehner and Paul Ryan, two previous Speakers, they got out. They got out early because they could not deal with their right-wing extremists,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told CNN on Tuesday. “I think McCarthy’s going to find the same problem.”
Winning the Speaker’s gavel
The Republicans’ slim House advantage poses another even more immediate problem for McCarthy heading into the new Congress: Whether he’ll have enough GOP support to win the Speaker’s gavel.
McCarthy easily won the Republican nomination for the post earlier this month, 188 to 31. But he needs to surpass a much higher bar — a majority of the full House — when the chamber meets on Jan. 3 to choose the next Speaker. With Republicans on track to have 222 House seats, at most, McCarthy can have far fewer than 31 defectors.
Helping him along, McCarthy has secured support from several prominent Freedom Caucus members — including Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) — as well as former President Trump.
But other conservatives are vowing to oppose him, including Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) and Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), who all say they’re firm nos. Reps. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) and Bob Good (R-Va.) are also voicing their resistance. Some are warning that they’re just the tip of the opposition iceberg.
McCarthy, whose Speakership bid was blocked by conservatives in 2015, is the first to acknowledge the internal challenge he’s facing.
“Look, we have our work cut out for us,” he told reporters just after winning the GOP nomination. “We’ve got to have a small majority. We’ve got to listen to everybody in our conference.”
Democrats are watching from the sidelines, wary that whatever promises McCarthy might make to win over the conservatives will make the lower chamber ungovernable.
“It’s one thing if you have a large majority, and you can sort of say, ‘Well, I can afford to ignore the crazies like Marjorie Taylor Greene,’” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told MSNBC on Monday. “It’s another if you have just a handful that are keeping you in the speaker’s chair, and they’re crazy.”
Change has come for Democrats
If the GOP leadership structure remains largely unchanged next year, the same will not be true across the aisle.
House Democrats will undergo a massive makeover in the next Congress after Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her top two deputies — Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Jim Clyburn (S.C.) — stepped out of the top three leadership spots after almost two decades together.
The abdications opened the floodgates for a new generation of up-and-coming Democrats to seize the reins of the party. And a trio of younger leaders — Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), Katherine Clark (Mass.) and Pete Aguilar (Calif.) — wasted no time stepping into the void as candidates for the top three positions, respectively.
All three are running unopposed, and are expected to win their seats easily when House Democrats stage their leadership elections next week.
For Jeffries, ascending to the minority leader spot would be historic, making him the first Black lawmaker to lead either party, in either chamber, since the nation’s founding. It would also limit the Democrats’ regional diversity, putting a New York City lawmaker in charge of the party in both the House and the Senate, where Chuck Schumer is expected to return next year as majority leader.
The shakeup — Pelosi’s departure in particular — has raised questions about the strategic changes to come in both parties.
For Democrats, that means determining what role Pelosi and Hoyer — who are both staying in Congress — will play as rank-and-file members. It also means deciding whether to designate more power to rank-and-file members and the committee heads after decades when much of the authority was consolidated with Pelosi. And they’ll have their work cut out in trying to recreate the fundraising role Pelosi has played over the last two decades.
For Republicans, who have spent years and millions of dollars demonizing Pelosi, it means finding another Democratic foil to use on the campaign trail.
Meanwhile, the would-be relationship between the House’s likely top leaders, McCarthy and Jeffries, is off to a rough start.
Jeffries, as head of the Democratic Caucus, has attacked McCarthy relentlessly since the Republican leader cozied up to Trump in the weeks after last year’s rampage at the Capitol, calling him “embarrassing” and “pathetic.” And the two have not spoken in some time.
Last week, Jeffries acknowledged the absence of any real connection.
“I do have, I think, a much warmer relationship with Steve Scalise,” he said on CNN’s “Meet the Press.”
Impeachment is already on the table
For months, House conservatives have pressed the case for impeaching Biden and members of his cabinet if the House were to change hands — a warning to both the administration and any GOP leaders who might be reluctant to take that step.
On Tuesday, McCarthy threw those Republicans a bone, saying he would consider impeaching Alejandro Mayorkas next year if the Homeland Security secretary refused to resign beforehand. Republicans have long been critical of Mayorkas’s handling of the migrant crisis at the southern border, and Republicans in this Congress have already introduced resolutions to remove him.
“If Secretary Mayorkas does not resign, House Republicans will investigate, every order, every action and every failure will determine whether we can begin impeachment inquiry,” McCarthy told reporters in El Paso, Texas.
The announcement is sure to appease the GOP’s conservative wing, which is where McCarthy needs more support to win the Speaker’s gavel. But whether he follows through on the threat next year remains to be seen.
Republicans were hurt politically following their impeachment of President Clinton in 1998, and many in the GOP — including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — have warned against making the same mistake next year.
Yet there are also perils for McCarthy if he ignores the impeachment demands: It could spark an outcry from a GOP base — much of which is still loyal to Trump — that’s keen to avenge the two impeachments that targeted the former president. And conservatives will be watching closely, ready to lash out at GOP leaders deemed insufficiently aggressive in taking on the Biden White House.
McCarthy seems to be keeping his options open, promising only that Republicans will investigate Mayorkas and see where it leads.
“This investigation could lead to an impeachment inquiry,” he said in El Paso.
Other fights to watch
With Republicans taking over the House, most of Biden’s ambitious domestic agenda is likely to come to a screeching halt. But that doesn’t mean the end of high-stakes legislating.
Congress next year will still — at a minimum — have to fund the federal government in order to prevent a shutdown, and raise Washington’s borrowing limit to stave off a government default.
Both debates are expected to squeeze House GOP leaders between the more moderate forces of the Senate — where McConnell will have to sign off on any fiscal deals — and the conservative firebrands of the lower chamber who say they’re ready to risk shutdowns and defaults to rein in government spending and realize other pieces of their legislative wishlist.
Part of that debate could feature a balanced budget amendment, which was the reason Ralph Norman said he’s opposing McCarthy’s Speakership bid. There’s also likely to be a push from the right to cut the big entitlement programs — Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — which are on autopilot and represent a huge chunk of the federal budget.
Must-pass government spending bills would also provide ready opportunity for House Republicans to attach other priority items, including provisions to build a border wall, expand domestic oil drilling and roll back environmental regulations.
A Democratic-led Senate would balk at such provisions — and Biden would likely veto any such bill that got that far — but the GOP-led House could force the issue.
Funding for Ukraine will get outsized attention next year. Under Democratic control — and with broad bipartisan support — Congress has approved tens-of-billions of dollars to help Kyiv weather the Russian assault. But a number of conservatives are vowing to oppose any new funding, saying that’s money better spent fixing problems at home.
Some Democrats are already voicing their concerns.
“It’s not hard to figure out that with a tiny, tiny majority — you know, Matt Gaetz and Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene together in a room control the fate of Kevin McCarthy,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) told MSNBC on Tuesday. “And so the question is sort of, how much does he feed them?”