Democrats Prepare for the Possibility of Divided Government in 2023

Democrats Prepare for the Possibility of Divided Government in 2023
(Left) House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks at a press conference at the Capitol building in Washington on Aug. 27, 2021. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images); (Right) Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) speaks to reporters in Washington on May 19, 2022. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Joseph Lord

After two years of unilateral control of the government, Democrats are preparing for the possibility of a divided government following the results of the 2022 midterms.

Despite continued hopes that they will hold the Senate, which many observers favor them to do, Democrats are facing long odds in the House, where most projections predict a GOP majority will return after two years in the minority.

Though Republicans are far from throwing in the towel in the battle for the U.S. Senate, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has gotten flak from his party for his gloomy predictions about Republicans’ prospects.

“Flipping the Senate, what are the chances? It’s a 50–50 proposition,“ McConnell told the Scott County Chamber of Commerce in August when asked about the approaching battle. ”We’ve got a 50–50 Senate right now. We’ve got a 50–50 nation. And I think the outcome is likely to be very, very close either way.”

McConnell blamed “candidate quality” for the gloomy outlook, which was followed by an op-ed from National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott (R-Fla.)—the number two Senate Republican for organizing campaign strategy and fundraising—blasting “treasonous” Republicans “trash-talking” Senate GOP candidates.
Like Scott, Senate Judiciary Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) remains optimistic about his party’s prospects, predicting a 52-48 Republican majority next year.
Still, if Republicans fail to retake the Senate, Democrats are still likely to face an end to their extended reign over the past two years. At the moment, FiveThirtyEight gives Republicans a 71 in 100 chance of retaking the House after four years in the majority.

If so, it would effectively put an end to President Joe Biden’s policy aspirations during the second half of his term.

Democrats are bracing for the possibility of just such an outcome, making dire predictions about the direction Congress could take under a divided government.

“If Republicans win control of the House, they will not be able to govern,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told the Hill when asked about the prospect. “It’ll be a cascading nightmare of dysfunction and horrible for the country and horrible news for anybody who relies on federal funding.”

Under a divided government, Murphy predicted “a series of shutdowns and funding crises.”

“This new breed of Republicans are anarchists,” Murphy argued. “They don’t really believe government should be funding anything.”

A divided government could have a litany of political consequences, including intense battles over the debt ceiling and a series of House-sponsored efforts to remove Democrat executive officials from office.

Debt Ceiling Battles

Historically, divided governments have caused gridlock and brinksmanship debt ceiling battles.

Even now, when Democrats retain nominal control of the House and Senate, congressional leadership has had to face down a series of close calls over the debt ceiling, such as in 2021 after McConnell and his caucus threatened to not grant Democrats the 60 votes needed to overcome the filibuster threshold.

Though McConnell ultimately caved, reaching an eleventh-hour agreement to raise the debt ceiling after months of demanding that Democrats use the partisan reconciliation process to raise it on their own, the prospect of more dangerous, drawn-out debt ceiling battles in a divided Congress looms large. In the past, some of the closest calls with default have come during periods of divided government.

If Republicans capture the House, current House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)—the likeliest pick for speaker of the House if his party wins—may find himself trying to whip up the votes among his ideologically split caucus to compromise with Senate Democrats to pass continuing resolutions if they retain the majority.

In 2011, when Republicans swept the House after two years of unified Democrat government control, the U.S. inched dangerously close to a default.

Those Republicans, riding on the limited government Tea Party wave of the 2010 election, demanded that President Barack Obama and his party add provisions to work on reducing the national debt and deficit spending before Republicans would agree to pass a funding bill.

Ultimately, Obama, Senate Democrats, and then-Speaker of the House John Boehner reached a last-minute deal to avert a default, but not before U.S. markets had faced their worst plunge since 2008 and some credit agencies downgraded the creditworthiness of the United States.

Still, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) expressed his optimism that a divided government would not see another such debt ceiling crisis.

“I think we’ve learned that shutdowns really are a lose-lose,” Blumenthal told the Hill.

“Certainly some House Republicans have learned,” he added. “Whether all of them or the newly elected ones remains to be seen.”

Meanwhile, a group of House Republicans led by Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) and supported by prominent lawmakers like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Rick Scott (R-Fla.), and Mike Lee (R-Utah), are making an effort to bar Democrats from including any new spending in ongoing negotiations for this year’s stopgap spending bill.

Roy and his colleagues have also demanded that this year’s continuing resolution not run out before Jan. 3, 2023, when a new, potentially Republican Congress will sit for the first time.

The effort, coming only weeks before the midterms, suggests that a great many House Republicans remain willing to use the debt ceiling to force concessions from the president and a potential Senate Democrat majority.

More Impeachments

A GOP majority could also use its position to advance articles of impeachment against both the president and lower executive officials, riding on the back of a precedent set by House Democrats in the 116th Congress.

Historically, the impeachment process, the largest possible censure of a sitting president, has been used very sparingly.

Before the Democrat House majority took its seats in 2018 after two years in the minority, only three presidents—Presidents Andrew Jackson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton—had ever faced down the prospect of impeachment.

However, Republicans remain frustrated with Democrats’ unsparing use of the process under President Donald Trump, causing some speculation that Republicans may pick up the new precedent set in the 116th Congress.

For a president to be removed from office, the House of Representatives must first pass impeachment articles. Following the successful passage of these articles by a simple majority of the House, the resolution heads to the Senate to begin a formal trial presided over by the Supreme Court.

Though a president is considered “impeached” following the passage of an impeachment resolution in the lower chamber, the chief executive can only be removed from office by a supermajority vote in the Senate. The three impeachments prior to the 116th Congress ended either in acquittal or, in Nixon’s case, resignation.

Because of the severity of the proceedings, lawmakers since the inception of the United States have been highly conservative in their use of the process, in part to maintain the dignity and prestige of the U.S. presidency.

But the Democrat majority in the 116th Congress made unprecedented use of the process, passing two articles of impeachment against Trump.

Like most impeachments before these, Trump’s Senate trial in both cases ended in acquittal.

Now that precedent has been broken, however, Republicans could very well follow the path first trod by the 116th House of Representatives.

Then-Senate Majority Leader McConnell warned as much at the time, saying in 2019 during the first impeachment effort that it set a “toxic” and “nightmarish” precedent that could be “deeply damaging to the institutions of American government.”

That impeachment effort came after Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) in 2017 introduced a measure to impeach Trump that failed overwhelmingly in a bipartisan vote, with Democrat leaders at the time criticizing Green for the effort.

But in 2021, following the breakdown at the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally, for which Trump was blamed by critics, all House Democrats signed onto the effort to impeach the president, who at the time had only a few days left in office.

If they retake the House then Republicans, who have been highly critical of Hunter Biden and Joe Biden’s past business dealings in Ukraine and elsewhere, could follow the same road.

Though it is almost certain that the resolution will not be considered under the current Congress, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) has already introduced articles of impeachment against Biden.

In the articles, Greene cited the involvement of both Bidens in Burisma, a Ukrainian oil and natural gas company. Greene accused Biden of “enabling bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanors” through his involvement with the firm.

Though that resolution has been lying dormant since March 2021, Republicans could take up the issue again if they retake the majority.

Republicans could also use the majority to seek impeachment for Biden’s heavily-criticized role in the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, which culminated in an unexpectedly rapid fall of the nation to the Taliban and a frantic weeks-long effort to rescue Americans and Afghan allies trapped in the country.

Other resolutions target lower government officials.

For instance, in Oct. 2021, Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) introduced articles of impeachment against Attorney General Merrick Garland. In the intervening months, GOP dissatisfaction with the attorney general has ballooned, particularly in the wake of the FBI’s much-criticized raid of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in Florida.

Rep. Chip Roy, whose popularity among Trump-allied Republicans has blossomed in the 117th Congress, also called in a March 2022 letter for Republicans to take up impeachment proceedings against Homeland Defense Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who Republicans blame for the current border crisis.

However, just as was the case in the 116th Congress, these efforts would be unlikely to go anywhere. Even if Republicans flipped both chambers of Congress, the party would be unlikely to be able to win the votes from enough Democrats to surpass the 60-vote threshold for removal from office.

Moreover, it remains unclear whether these efforts would have the green light from a potential Speaker McCarthy, who may prefer for his caucus to focus efforts on probes and inquiries into the policies pushed by Biden and his cabinet over the past two years.

Democrats Forced to Compromise

Over their past two years in unilateral control of the government, most of the Democrats’ negotiations have been intra-party affairs rather than discussions with the GOP minority. Generally, these negotiations have been between the party’s leaders and moderate elements in the Senate like Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

Such negotiations were on display in the lead-up to the March 2021 passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act.

Because the legislation, like most of the Democrats’ legislative wins of the past two years, used the reconciliation process—which can bypass the Senate filibuster and pass with a simple majority—Democrats needed only the consent of their caucus to pass the bill. Ultimately, the multi-trillion dollar bill passed both chambers of Congress strictly along party lines. The nature of the process effectively allows the majority party to rule without any minority input or approval.

In the last several months of 2021, Democrats hoped to use the same process to pass an even larger $3.5 trillion reconciliation package. Because of skepticism from Manchin and Sinema, who at one point were meeting with Biden almost daily to work out a deal, that price tag was eventually slashed to $1.75 trillion before finally being scrapped in December 2021 when Manchin unilaterally rejected the package, dubbed the Build Back Better Act, altogether.

However, Democrats were more successful in their use of the process to pass the most recent reconciliation bill, Manchin’s $700 billion Inflation Reduction Act. That bill devoted around $400 billion to new climate policies, many of which had been carried over from the defunct Build Back Better Act. Like the American Rescue Plan Act, the Inflation Reduction Act was hurried through Congress and passed without any GOP support.

During the 117th Congress, only one major policy achievement, the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, was able to garner any GOP support.

But Democrats, secure in their thin majorities, have spent over $2.5 trillion without minority party input.

If Republicans took one or both chambers of Congress, Democrats and the White House, if they hoped to make any new legislative wins before the end of Biden’s first term, would no longer be able to steamroll legislation through Congress without Republican support.

In practice, this would mean the party and the president would be forced to reach compromise agreements to pass new legislation, putting an end to the party’s long-lived era of unilateral control. It remains to be seen how the party would adjust to such a change, as Republicans would likely demand policies that would be distasteful to Democrats’ more progressive elements.

Historically, parties are unable to substantially put aside their differences during divided government rule, meaning that the most likely outcome in a split 118th Congress would be only minimal legislative achievements if any.

If Biden does not run again in 2024, as some members of his party have begun to suspect, this could mean that in Biden’s final two years in office he would reign over a stagnant government.