Voters usher in a divided government as Trump and Congress promise bipartisanship
The past two years have produced some of the most combative politics in recent history. In the next two years, President Donald Trump and the 116th Congress will have a stark choice about whether to further entrench the partisan divide or find common ground and govern.
On Tuesday night, Democrats successfully flipped 27 seats in the House, securing a 229 to 206 majority while Republicans added to their majority in the Senate by flipping three or possibly four Democratic seats.
President Trump appeared to welcome the opportunity to wheel and deal with a Democratic House of Representatives on policy issues like infrastructure, trade, the economy and health care. "Now we have a much easier path because the Democrats will come to us with a plan for infrastructure, a plan for health care, a plan for whatever they are looking at and we’ll negotiate," Trump said at a Tuesday press conference. "It really could be a beautiful, bipartisan type of situation."
The alternative scenario is one in which House Democrats, eager to exercise aggressive oversight, use the powers of the legislative branch for hand to hand combat with the Trump administration. Democratic members of Congress expected to take chairmanships have already said they will be investigating the Trump administration, calling witnesses related to the Russia investigation, looking into ethics concerns and forcing the disclosure of the president's tax returns.
"If they do that, then it’s just a war-like posture," Trump told reporters, saying that dynamic would "probably be very good for me politically." Democrats will have a choice between investigations or bipartisanship, Trump claimed, "You can't do them simultaneously."
Overnight and into Wednesday afternoon, Republican and Democratic Party leaders outlined a bipartisan wish list. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who is expected to retake the gavel as Speaker of the House, emphasized bipartisanship and tread softly on the question of investigating Trump. She told reporters that the Democrat House would engage in "responsible oversight" adding, "I don't think we'll have any I don't think we'll have any scattershot freelancing."
Facing opposition from freshmen Democrats and a number of incumbents, Pelosi pitched herself as "the best person to go forward, to unify, to negotiate."
President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. have both reached out to Pelosi and expressed a desire to work on infrastructure, job creation and lowering prescription drug costs.
However, the issues that dominated President Trump's closing arguments during the midterms, immigration and border security, are unlikely to see any action in the 116th Congress. Trump came close to a bipartisan immigration deal with Democratic leaders that included funding for border security and a path to citizenship for roughly 1.8 million Dreamers. The deal fell apart early this year amid chaotic negotiations and competing factions in the White House and Capitol.
McConnell noted that neither party has been able to find a path forward on immigration and it is not likely to happen with a divided Congress. "I can't imagine we’ll do anything beyond trying to deal with this funding issue on the wall here at the end of the session." In December, Congress will vote on a government spending bill which includes President Trump's $5 billion request for the border wall and security.
"The American people have given us a divided government," McConnell told reporters Wednesday. "I think the message is figure out what you can do together and do it."
Jason Grumet, the president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, is optimistic about the changes in Washington, explaining that historically, a divided government has proven to be a very effective way to govern.
"The best way to come up with solutions for a divided country is to have a divided government," Grumet told Sinclair Broadcast Group. "It's not going to be Kumbaya. There are going to be big fights. But what has made the country work well in the past is that Congress has been able to both fight and get things done."
The top areas for bipartisan compromise are on infrastructure spending, paid family leave and addressing both the cost and quality of higher education, according to the Grumet.
During the first two years of his presidency, Trump had little reason to work across the aisle. The Republican-controlled House and Senate leadership were able to pass the $1.5 trillion tax cut package on a strict party-line vote. Sen. McConnell removed the 60-vote threshold for confirming Supreme Court justices, paving the way for both Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to be confirmed with limited Democratic support.
That dynamic has changed and looking ahead to the 2020 elections, both Republicans and Democrats have a stake in proving they are capable of governing.
"We've seen a lot with this president during the first two years. This will be his next act," said John Boyd, founder of the Boyd Company, a corporate consultancy firm. Given Trump's pride as a deal-maker and his propensity for directly engaging his political opponents, there is a chance the Congress and presidency could thrive. "This is a negotiator in chief. In some ways, he is in his element now with a divided Congress."
The optimism was also reflected on Wall Street where the markets had their best post-midterm rally since 1982. That postelection bump was less about the prospect of a new Congress getting a lot accomplished, but the opposite. "Divided government tends to mean policy gridlock, which means we've got certainty," said Mark Harkins, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Government Affairs Institute.
The renewed discussion of an infrastructure package has also spurred excitement in the private sector over the possibility of new government and private investment and job creation.
While both sides make their postelection overtures of bipartisan amity, Trump's ability to navigate between Republican hardliners, moderates and Democrats will be put to the test shortly. In the early months of the 116th Congress, lawmakers will be faced with a series of budget deadlines. By the spring of 2019, Congress will have to raise the debt ceiling. Then they will have to set budget priorities for 2020 after years of spending billions of dollar above mandated budget caps.
"[The budget] makes it absolutely clear, they have to find some way to collaborate or they will not be able to keep the government of the United States of America open," Grumet warned. The budget will set the stage for major policy battles with the possibility of government shutdowns and big spending increases.
Leaving the polls Tuesday, the overwhelming majority of voters expressed concerns that Americans are becoming more divided politically, according to exit data from CNN. Though many candidates campaigned on the promise of restoring civility in politics, many voters endorsed Democratic Party candidates to conduct oversight on President Trump.
The new Congress will have to strike a balance between appropriate oversight responsibilities and getting caught in a series of bitter, partisan investigations of President Trump and his administration.
There will be a lot of pent-up energy on the Democratic side to do some of the investigations that they couldn't do while they were in the minority. That includes a number of inquiries into credible allegations of corruption, explained Grumet. "To every reaction, there is a potential overreaction," he warned. "Our hope is that does not derail the more important focus on the legislative agenda."
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., expected to become the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee has promised to investigate the president and his administration on issues including environmental protection, separating migrant families and the administration's role in the multi-state Affordable Care Act lawsuit. The investigation with be "meticulous and well-grounded," said Rep. Gerry Connelly, D-Va., a member of the Judiciary Committee. "We can't look like Torquemada in the Spanish Inquisition."
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., expected to take the chairmanship of the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee has also pledged to investigate Trump's potential conflicts of interest and violations of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution stemming from his continued ownership of a number of companies doing business worldwide.
Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., who will likely lead the House Ways and Means Committee, previously said he would use his chairmanship man to force the disclosure of Trump's tax returns, a move that will likely trigger a lengthy court process.
The House Intelligence Committee, which was engaged in a highly partisan oversight investigation of Russian election interference, will almost certainly be led by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. Schiff has a number of outstanding requests for members of the Trump 2016 campaign to testify. Those requests were blocked by the Republican majority, but can now move forward and be enforced with congressional subpoena power.