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All Eyes on the House

What are Republicans’ plans if they take the majority?

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy speaks at a news conference with fellow House Republicans on January 20, 2022. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

If Republicans take the House in next week’s midterm elections, get ready for a contentious remaining two years in President Joe Biden’s term. House Republicans will focus almost entirely on investigations, oversight, and the messaging bills to fulfill campaign promises early on.

But could they find any areas of common cause with the Biden administration? This edition of Uphill and the next will examine how a potential GOP House will operate.

Room for Agreement?

A Republican House would mark the end of the Democratic policy agenda for at least the next two years. Yet there may be room for collaboration on major policy goals. 

Both parties want to take a tougher stance with China, and more Republicans have been advocating industrial policies in recent years to bring critical sectors to the United States. The GOP is also likely to emphasize ramping up defenses for Taiwan, Wisconsin GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher wrote last week.

Other opportunities include medical research and technology privacy protections.

Spending and Showdowns

If Republicans do want to craft law under a Democratic president, their biggest opportunities will come in the form of government funding bills, must-pass defense authorization packages, and a debt ceiling deadline next year. These are high-stakes negotiations, with potential government shutdowns and a debt default looming in the background.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, poised to become speaker if Republicans take the chamber, has already indicated the conference will use debt ceiling negotiations as leverage to exact concessions like spending cuts. Other influential Republicans have said they are eyeing reforms such as raising the age of eligibility for entitlement programs including Medicare and Social Security.

Given the toxicity of the issue, some insiders doubt action on that front.

“There’s zero chance Republicans are going to pass any type of meaningful entitlement reform or even try,” Brendan Buck, who was a senior aide to former House speakers Paul Ryan and John Boehner, said during a recent podcast.

Buck said that House Republicans may instead go to the mat with immigration and border security demands—much more energizing to the Republican base.

The conference dynamics could be unwieldy. More far-right members are set to join the GOP’s ranks after the election, and they’re the politicians most likely to oppose any form of cooperation with the White House on must-pass bills.

Josh Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, told The Dispatch he expects the House Republican conference to be “totally rankled in a lot of factional disputes” that will make it difficult for the chamber to be productive.

The House GOP will have some serious policy makers, he said, but they are “arguably going to be in the minority within their own party.”

“It’s just a question of what can they get this emergent faction of really radical, sort of largely policy-absent faction to agree to,” Huder said. “They’re radical, but they’re not conservative. And that makes it very difficult for the conservative lawmakers of the party to sort of organize or orchestrate policy goals that you can get a large chunk of your caucus to agree to.”

Personalities

That may be why Ryan, the former Republican House speaker who retired in 2018, said on Buck’s podcast this week that keeping the conference from splintering is “going to be even more challenging for Kevin” than it was in his time.

Huder predicted McCarthy won’t be able to do so: “I think Kevin McCarthy, if he wins the job, is essentially entering an early retirement plan from politics.”

Next year’s big spending fights and debt ceiling staredown will be perilous for a Republican leader trying to satisfy the party’s far-right faction—some of whom have been questioning McCarthy’s authority for a long time. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene once publicly threw doubt on McCarthy’s odds of becoming speaker. More recently, she said she expects him to keep the Republican base happy by giving her “a lot of power and a lot of leeway” in the new Congress.

Buck, the former House GOP aide, pointed out in an interview with The Dispatch last year that many of the traditional tools congressional leaders use to satisfy their members aren’t necessarily effective for people like Greene, who would “love to be held out as the ones fighting with leadership.”

Still, Buck is optimistic about McCarthy’s ability to navigate those relationships.

McCarthy can keep those members on his side by giving them credibility and bringing them into the fold even as others would prefer to keep them on the fringes, Buck said. McCarthy’s done it before: He elevated leading members of the Freedom Caucus to major committees and last year suggested he’d give Greene and Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar even better committee assignments than the ones House Democrats stripped them of.

But that may be unsustainable. Greene pledged this week that under Republicans, “not another penny will go to Ukraine,” a stance completely opposite that of senior Republicans on leading committees.

Passing a comprehensive government funding bill before the new Congress convenes would mitigate intraparty strife, Buck said. A package assuring the government stays funded until October would give McCarthy “a really long time to put some points on the board, generate goodwill, let the House pass lots of messaging bills, let the House do lots of oversight work.”

A sweeping Ukraine aid package in the lame duck session could head off clashes in the House GOP next year too. But that first spending fight, regardless of when it comes and which policies Republicans focus on in the negotiations, is certain to be tense. 

“The ultimate challenge for House Republicans for the last 12 years has been grappling with the limits of their power,” Buck said. “There are only so many tools you have to try to force outcomes.”

Messaging

Whether a GOP-controlled House is successful in getting legislation signed by the president, it’s all but guaranteed to do what the House typically does in times of divided government: pass messaging bills.

In the middle of former President Donald Trump’s term, House Democrats approved gun control and election reform legislation that had no chance of making it through the Senate. When Republicans had the House during former President Barack Obama’s tenure, they repeatedly passed bills to roll back his party’s signature health care law, the Affordable Care Act. 

Expect more of the same beginning January: Republican lawmakers have pledged to repeal corporate tax increases Democrats passed in the first half of Biden’s presidency and make components of the 2017 GOP tax cuts permanent. These would earn instant opposition from the White House, along with any other attempts to repeal big Democratic agenda items passed in the first two years of Biden’s term.

A review of Republicans’ recent attempts to amend or send legislation back to committees in the current House foreshadows what may come back up as messaging bills in the new Congress if Republicans win the House: additional border security measures, expansions of American oil and gas drilling, a reduction of federal agencies’ use of telework by requiring them to return to pre-pandemic levels, and mandates for reports from government agencies examining the effects of school closures on children during the coronavirus pandemic.

Republicans could also push for debate on a national bill blocking federal funds and federally owned properties from being used for education or events about sexuality, sexual orientation, gender identity and dysphoria, or transgender identities for children under the age of 10.

Waiting for the Outcome

This all depends on what happens next Tuesday, when voters go to the polls. 

Huder argued “the combination for the least functional form of government” would be a Republican House and a Democratic Senate, alongside a Democratic president.

“It really limits the president’s ability to work with Congress because Congress doesn’t have an actual policy position,” Huder said.

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.