A narrowly divided Congress next year means many of both parties’ top policy priorities will have a tough time of making it to President Biden’s desk.
House Republicans, who will narrowly control the lower chamber, have placed a heavy emphasis on oversight and investigatory activities for the next Congress with the knowledge that many conservative priorities have little chance of making it through the Senate, where the Democrats kept their razor-thin majority.
But baseline government activities will continue, providing plenty of possibilities for deal-making and negotiation that may not take the form of sweeping policy bills but could nonetheless allow the House to take action in key areas.
“It is very difficult to imagine constructive bipartisan immigration legislation at the moment,” said Jason Grumet, founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center. “I don’t expect that you’ll see much legislative action on a proactive energy and climate agenda.”
“I think there may be opportunities for some good, old-fashioned transactional legislating, where Republicans and Democrats put things together that they each want,” Grumet added.
That means House Republicans willing to play ball in a bipartisan fashion could hold many of the cards.
“You’ve got to work with Democrats in the House, because if you’re going to pass on a party-line vote here, it’s not going to pass with a filibuster in the Senate,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), co-chairman of the more centrist Main Street Caucus.
Asked about what could get to Biden’s desk in the next Congress, Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), who was elected this week to chair the Democratic Policy and Communication Committee, noted Congress is due to consider several periodic, multiyear omnibus bills that are expiring in 2023 and need to be updated or reauthorized.
That includes passing a Farm Bill, a massive undertaking repeated once every five years that governs agricultural and food programs, as well as reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration. The last Farm and FAA Reauthorization bills were passed in 2018.
Programs in the SUPPORT Act, a 2018 culmination of dozens of bipartisan bills that aim to address opioid abuse, are also up for reauthorization in 2023.
“Consensus among Republicans and Democrats is even more scarce today than it was back then,” former House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a post-election analysis for the lobbying firm Squire Patton Boggs, where he is now a senior adviser. “But even in a time of divided government and tribal politics, legislation will advance and deals will have to be made in order to ensure government can meet its basic obligations to the people.”
But there is not much optimism on the Democratic side for significant policy movement on much else.
“I think you’re going to find that Democrats have an open door in terms of trying to find ways to forge consensus,” Neguse said, mentioning that there could be bipartisan action to address wildfire issues. “But ultimately, it’s going to take a governing partner, so we’ll have to see if the Republicans are serious about doing that. Unfortunately, the extremism that seems to be on the rise on the other side of the aisle may prevent that.”
Some Republicans disagree.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has pledged to create a House select committee on China — an area of concern for both parties — if he is elected Speaker, and Republicans hope that it can work in a bipartisan, non-adversarial way to address how the U.S. deals with China domestically, economically and technologically.
A House GOP aide said a bill signed by Biden this year to boost domestic chip manufacturing, the result of years of bipartisan negotiations, showed that the parties can find some agreement and common ground on boosting U.S. technology and supply chains — even though Republicans overwhelmingly opposed its final passage over tax measures and the political timing of the bill.
Issues like Beijing’s purchase of agricultural land in the U.S. and addressing access to critical minerals and energy are ripe for bipartisan cooperation, the aide said.
“We may not always agree on necessarily specific outcomes, but if we can get to, you know, solutions for both sides, I think that’s a win,” the aide said.
Bacon, the Nebraska congressman, was optimistic about bipartisan opportunities in areas in health care like telehealth access and expanding associational pools.
Still, pressure from hard-line conservative Republicans has the potential to throw uncertainty into the legislative calendar. McCarthy and other Republicans have suggested using raising the debt ceiling, which is expected to be reached sometime in 2023, as a political leverage to get concessions on spending levels or other matters.
And to some conservatives, lack of action can be a win. Many House Republicans have cheered the fact that they will act as a firewall against the Biden administration and Democratic policies.
“Voters overwhelmingly said that they were concerned about inflation. The inflation that we’re experiencing has mostly been driven by government spending,” said Garrett Bess, vice president of Heritage Action, the advocacy arm of the prominent conservative think tank. “Not passing more COVID packages or those kinds of emergency spending packages would be a huge step for getting inflation under control.”
And there are some areas where the parties may share an interest in taking action but where disagreement on the details could derail any progress.
Grumet mentioned permitting reform for energy and mineral projects as one of those areas.
“It’s going to be very, very hard to do. But there’s a real big difference between, like, very, very hard and impossible,” Grumet said.