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Can a divided Congress get anything done?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Republicans secured their 218th seat in the House of Representatives last week, ensuring that they will regain control of the lower chamber of Congress for the next two years.

With votes still being counted in a handful of close races, the size of the GOP’s majority has yet to be determined. It’s clear, though, that their advantage will be very narrow — much narrower than it would have been had the “red wave” that many pre-election forecasts predicted had come to pass. Still, flipping the House will give Republicans the power to stifle President Biden’s legislative agenda and block any bills that come out of the Senate, which will remain under Democratic control.

“The era of one-party Democrat rule in Washington is over,” California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the frontrunner to be the next speaker of the House, said last week. “Washington now has a check and balance.”

The GOP has also indicated they plan to use their newly acquired power to launch a wide range of investigations into the Biden administration. In a news conference last week, several House Republicans laid out their plans to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Homeland Security’s handling of immigration, the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the business practices of the president’s son Hunter Biden and the Department of Justice’s inquiries into former President Donald Trump.

Republicans taking over the House means a return to divided government in Washington after two years of unified Democratic control.

Why there’s debate

Losing the House all but ensures that Democrats won’t be able to enact the more ambitious items on their legislative agenda. But there’s debate over whether the Congress will be able to accomplish anything at all over the next two years, including the basic functions it must perform to keep the government running and prevent economic disaster.

Pessimists from both sides of the political spectrum argue that the two parties are so divided that there’s very little chance they could come to an agreement on how to address any of the problems facing the country. Some also make the case that the GOP’s narrow majority will give the party’s most inflammatory far-right members the ability to block any legislation the moderate House Republicans might be willing to compromise on.

Many pundits on the left say that the GOP’s only goal will be inflicting political damage on Biden and his administration in hopes of weakening his chances if he seeks reelection in 2024. That focus, they argue, makes it possible that the Republican House could refuse to pass spending bills needed to prevent a government shutdown or allow the U.S. to breach the debt limit, which would lead to economic catastrophe.

But optimists believe that, though the process is likely to be contentious, it will still be possible for Congress to come to agreement on at least some important legislation. Some argue that the fissures within the GOP caucus could give Democrats the opportunity to partner with moderate Republicans on bipartisan bills that address the priorities of both sides. Some conservative commentators also believe that Republicans have strong political incentive to show voters that they’re capable of sound governance if they want to reclaim control of the Senate and the White House two years from now.

What’s next

Democrats will maintain control of the House until the new Congress is sworn in in January. Reports suggest that the party is aiming to use what’s known as the “lame duck” period to pass legislation to codify marriage rights, protect so-called “Dreamers,” reform how presidential elections are certified and raise the debt ceiling. It’s unclear, though, how much of that ambitious plan can be accomplished in the brief legislative window before the GOP takes over.



Right-wing Republicans will make managing the House impossible

“With McCarthy in notional charge of the House — and with any breakaway faction of half a dozen or so lawmakers ready to torpedo any legislative movement in no time flat — McCarthy’s long-coveted leadership post promises to be less a monument to his world-shaping ambitions and something much more like a medieval torture device.” — Chris Lehmann, The Nation

The only things to expect from Congress are chaos and dysfunction

“The political landscape waiting just over the horizon is set to be one of mind-numbing, gut-churning inanity, the kind that becomes a weariness seeping into your bones. It would be loud and infuriating and built upon an avalanche of cynical, time-wasting garbage. It would be two years of paralysis on the issues that matter the most, punctured only by self-destructive attempts to tear the country down in hope of rebuilding upon the ashes.” — Hayes Brown, MSNBC

Congress may be able to avoid disaster, but any true progress seems impossible

“The president’s party losing just one chamber is enough to dramatically change how Washington functions — or doesn’t. And with a Republican House majority likely to be slim, and a fractious collection of GOP lawmakers that includes brash conservatives pressuring leaders for a partisan wish list, must-pass bills are certain to trigger some messy fights. Outside of those types of bills, there probably would be little actual lawmaking.” — Tal Kopan, Boston Globe

Even the basic functions of government can’t be taken for granted

“Yes, past House Republican regimes have found a way to go along with measures needed to head off a debt default and a global economic meltdown, or even a U.S. government shutdown. But not one single constructive act can be taken for granted from the crowd about to take over the House.” — Ed Kilgore, New York

The GOP’s far-right flank is only focused on political warfare

“Republican hard-liners aren’t interested in governance; they will insist on making everything a life-or-death showdown with no room for compromise.” — Brynn Tannehill, New Republic

Trump will force Republicans to reject any potential compromise

‘The next two years will also play out against the backdrop of the 2024 presidential campaign, and now that Trump is running again, he will likely oppose any agreement that Republicans hammer out with the incumbent.” — Russell Berman, Atlantic


Republicans have to prove to voters that they can be trusted to lead the country

“If the GOP wants to convince the electorate to give it a real mandate in 2024, it needs to show it can govern.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

The GOP’s bare majority could make it hard for them to block everything Democrats put forward

“Another factor could constrain Republicans: their razor-thin majority. More moderate Republicans in swing districts, which the House majority relies on, might not want to take on risky fights that could shut down the government or cause economic chaos.” — German Lopez, New York Times

Blocking Democrats’ agenda is a success in itself

“While Republicans did much worse than they had expected in the elections, they did well enough that Biden won’t be able to enact new liberal legislation in the next two years — not, at least, without giving conservatives something in return.” — Ramesh Ponnuru, Bloomberg

History has shown that a lot gets done under divided government

“Think about all the things that government has undertaken in the years since the Second World War. The role and scope of the US government is so much greater now than it was then. And a lot of that happened in divided government. Most of that has been under divided government time. … Unified government usually results in disappointment for the party in power.” — Frances Lee, political scientist, to CNN

Democrats could have leverage to pressure the GOP into backing a few moderate bills

“No doubt, MAGA extremists might make governance, even on their own party’s priorities, impossible. Nevertheless, the administration has the chance to demonstrate that it is concerned with crime and immigration as well as Capitol security and ethics reform. If Republicans can’t take yes for an answer on any of these, then voters will be able to assess for themselves which party is serious about their concerns.” — Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post

Congress could still pass some modest, yet important, legislation

“It seems safe to assume that no one should expect any policy home runs in the next two years. But starting from that realization might open up space for some small-ball wins. Those who’d like to see big, sweeping change in either direction will naturally be frustrated; but for those who would like to see Congress spend the next two years doing something other than just partisan bickering, there is at least a little hope.” — Patrick T. Brown, Deseret News

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images