WASHINGTON — The U.S. is headed for another era of divided government in the new year, as Republicans are poised to claim control of the House of Representatives on Jan. 3. Democrats will wield an expanded 51-seat Senate majority and control the presidency.
As recent decades have shown, split control of Congress can get messy in an age of rising partisanship and political acrimony. And the dynamics on the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue will set the backdrop for the 2024 presidential election.
Here are four battles that loom on Capitol Hill this year.
A House leadership fight
Can Kevin McCarthy win — or hold on to — the speaker’s gavel?
McCarthy, R-Calif., is facing a rebellion from a band of conservative flame-throwers vowing to deny him the speakership Tuesday when the House takes its first floor vote of the new Congress.
McCarthy, who has led House Republicans in the minority for the past four years, won his party’s nomination for speaker in a closed-door, secret-ballot vote in November. In fact, he trounced Biggs, 188-31, winning 85% of his GOP conference.
But he'll need 218 votes on the floor to secure the speakership.
In a call with House Republicans Sunday night, McCarthy outlined concessions he would be willing to make in order to obtain the gavel, including a rule change that would water down the power of the speaker, according to CNN, which cited multiple sources on the call. The change would make it easier for rank-and-file members to oust a speaker in the middle of the Congress, and was a key demand from members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus who had been withholding their support.
Still, nine House Republicans — current and incoming — said in a letter dated Sunday and obtained by NBC News that McCarthy had yet to do enough to earn their support.
On top of that, there is the smaller group of five “Never Kevins” who say they won’t back McCarthy under any circumstance.
McCarthy can afford only a handful of GOP defections because of the party’s razor-thin majority. McCarthy allies say the guerrilla tactics from conservatives will only delay the new House GOP majority from getting off to a strong start and launching investigations into the Biden administration — because the House can’t conduct any business until it has elected a speaker.
Averting government shutdowns
Even if the divided Congress leads to legislative gridlock, it will still have to keep the lights on. That will be no easy task: Republican-led Houses have sparked shutdowns under the last two Democratic presidents. Will President Joe Biden be an exception?
McCarthy’s fierce objections to a bipartisan government funding bill just before the holidays show that the House has very different priorities from Biden and the Senate. He has described funding bills as a vehicle to force Democrats to swallow some conservative policy goals, like tightening border controls and cutting long-term retirement spending.
"The baseline's too high. Spending's too much. We need to be cutting spending,” McCarthy told reporters after a meeting with Senate Republicans on Dec. 21. “This would be an opportunity for us to get some security on our border — we're missing out on that."
Democratic leaders are in wait-and-see mode.
“It’s too early to judge what’s going to happen in the House. There’s so much discombobulation and disunity on different sides of the Republican caucus,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters before the holiday recess. “I’ve always gotten along with Kevin McCarthy. We don’t agree on a whole lot of issues, but I try to work with anyone I can to get things done for the American people.”
Preventing a catastrophic debt default
One of the more daunting tasks for the new Congress will be to raise the country's debt ceiling in 2023 to make sure the U.S. can pay its bills and prevent a catastrophic default. Wall Street is already spooked about the prospect of brinkmanship, particularly after the last Democratic president who faced down a GOP House came within days of breaching the debt limit.
Conservative lawmakers say a GOP House should block a debt limit increase without major policy changes to rein in spending.
"We need fiscal restraint, and we should demand it. And if we're not going to get fiscal restraint, we shouldn't vote to raise the debt ceiling. It's that simple," said Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas. "Neither side of the aisle gives a s--- about reducing spending. And we should. ... You should not vote to raise the debt ceiling without structural change."
Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., said the issue will "require a lot of robust debates within the caucus" before a strategy is set. "On certain key inflection points, like [the] debt ceiling, we're going to have to figure out a way forward," he said. "Everyone's going to have to realize that you can't get 100% of what you want."
Schumer said the issue should be tackled “in a bipartisan way — and we will be working in the next Congress to get that done.”
GOP investigations — and impeachment?
After four years in the political wilderness, newly empowered House Republicans are salivating at the chance to investigate Biden and his administration.
Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., who is likely to be the next chairman of the Oversight and Reform Committee, said Republicans plan to hit the ground running with investigations, beginning with immigration and Covid response.
"Our first two hearings will probably be on the border ... and second will probably be Covid," Comer said in an interview.
The House will "eventually" call in Dr. Anthony Fauci, who retired as the government's top infectious disease specialist at the end of last year, to testify, Comer said, adding that his committee wants to obtain new information about how the government handled Covid — which began during the Trump administration — before it puts him in the hot seat.
The committee also plans a sweeping investigation of Biden's son Hunter Biden and the presidential family's business dealings, just one year before a likely Biden 2024 re-election bid. Comer told reporters he has no interest in targeting Biden's family members. "This is an investigation of Joe Biden, the president of the United States," he said.
And with investigations could come calls for impeachment — not necessarily of Biden, but perhaps of others in his administration. Some House Republicans are already calling to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas over his department's handling of immigration policy.