The Leaders Who Will “Control” Congress Next Year
Late last week we finally learned that the GOP will control the U.S. House of Representatives beginning next year. And we also know which lawmakers will lead both parties in the U.S. Senate and who will lead Republicans in the House. (Though there were some major developments last week, House Democrats will have not yet chosen their leaders.)
What will these choices mean for the 118th Congress, and how likely is that any of these leaders actually will have “control” of their caucus, must less the overall legislative agenda?
Let’s take a look.
A Look at Republican Leadership in the U.S. House
When it comes to the U.S. House, “control” of the chamber might be too strong a word.
Right now, the GOP’s majority stands at eight seats with three races still left to be called. That means whoever leads Republicans in the House cannot lose many members of his or her party and still win partisan votes. (And, as we explained last week, counting on even that narrow margin for the next two years is a fool’s errand. We could see the majority party lose seats, or gain them, as the 118th Congress progresses.)
So who will be in charge of keeping Republican lawmakers together?
Last Tuesday, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who has served as the House minority leader over the last several years, was elected by a group of his peers to continue leading his party now that it controls the House.
That does not necessarily mean, however, that Rep. McCarthy actually will be speaker of the U.S. House. To gain that position, he will need to win a majority of votes from the entire body of House lawmakers, including Democrats, next January.
Normally, that should not be too difficult of a feat for the leader of the majority party.
As we have said many times before, of course, these are not normal times. For the last decade, the Republican caucus has been marked by significant internal dissent. The number of moderate members is dwindling and the strength of conservatives has grown. To control his caucus — and to be elected speaker in the first place — Rep. McCarthy will have to bring these two sides together.
Already, that doesn’t seem to be happening as GOP conservatives already are defecting. During last week’s leadership election, for example, Rep. McCarthy lost 31 votes.
Those 31 votes went to Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) who was nominated by Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) as an alternative to Rep. McCarthy. Both Rep. Biggs and Rep. Roy are members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which will continue to be a thorn in Rep. McCarthy’s side. Indeed, right after the leadership vote Rep. Roy reportedly told Fox News, “In the private sector, if you don’t perform the way you should, usually there’s some sort of change.” In a statement he added, “My position remains the same until further notice — no one has 218 (or close, as needed). We have to sit down and establish the fundamental changes needed.”
It sure sounds like Rep. Roy is not ready to vote for Rep. McCarthy to be speaker, even though he has not yet said as much. Other House Freedom Caucus have said they will definitely not vote for Rep. McCarthy for speaker, however. Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) told Politico this week that he is a “hard” no vote against Rep. McCarthy.
By Politico’s count, Rep. Norman is the fifth GOP lawmaker to state their opposition to McCarthy as speaker. Rep. Biggs, along with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.), and Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), are the others. That means, with his current House margin, if all lawmakers cast a ballot for speaker, Rep. McCarthy would not have the votes to become House speaker unless he picks off a few Democratic votes, which seems highly unlikely.
But wait …
There is an important caveat in that sentence, however: as The Washington Post explains, according to House rules, to win, a speaker “simply needs to earn a majority of votes cast ‘for a person by name.’” Instead of voting “no” on Rep. McCarthy’s nomination, those five lawmakers could abstain from voting. If that happens, Rep. McCarthy would need only the majority of the ballots actually cast.
Bottom line: get your popcorn ready. We will not know how this vote shakes out until House lawmakers assemble to cast their ballots.
The House speakership is not the only important role on the line, of course. GOP lawmakers already have chosen Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) to be majority leader and Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) to be majority whip. (The whip is the person with the thankless job of corralling votes for a party on legislative and leadership matters.)
Republicans also will need to choose chairs for the standing committees that oversee everything from appropriations to the federal budget to health, financial services, and tax policy. Republicans adopted a rule for their own caucus last week that will expand the number of people on the committee that makes choices about these chairs. That rule means seniority will matter less when it comes to who leads these important policy-making panels.
It also means Rep. McCarthy and his deputies will have even less control of who leads committees, and what they do on them.
A Look at Democratic Leadership in the U.S. House
As noted above, while House Democrats have not yet cast ballots in their leadership elections, we do know that there will be major shifts in who leads the caucus.
After serving as her party’s leader for nearly 20 years as Speaker of the House and minority leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is stepping down. Her top two deputies, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), also are ready to pass their batons to a new generation.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y) is the odds-on favorite to become Democrats’ new leader. Reps. Pelosi, Clyburn, and Hoyer all are backing Rep. Jeffries in his bid. According to CNN, the powerful Congressional Black Caucus and Progressive Caucus also are expected to encourage their respective members to support Rep. Jeffries’ candidacy. Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) should also easily win the other two top leaderships spots. (Democratic whip for Rep. Clark and Democratic Caucus chair for Rep. Aguilar.)
In a letter released last week, Rep. Jeffries outlined his agenda (even though he won’t have control over the legislation that comes to the floor). He said, “more must be done to combat inflation, defend our democracy, secure reproductive freedom, welcome new Americans, promote equal protection under the law, and improve public safety throughout this country.”
Democrats also will have to decide which lawmakers serve as ranking members on House committees. (Ranking members are all part of the minority party; they play number two to the chairs.) Unlike Republicans, Democrats largely rely on seniority to make these decisions so while we will see a generational changing on the guards in Democrats’ top leadership positions, do not expect that change to filter down to the committees.
A Look at Leadership in the U.S. Senate
While it looks like the U.S. House will be in turmoil during most of the 118th Congress, in the Senate we will see a continuation of the status quo.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) will still be in charge of the legislative agenda and his caucus. He will be aided by current Majority Whip Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Depending on the outcome of the Georgia Senate election runoff, Vice President Kamala Harris may need to stand by to cast tie-breaking votes if Republicans are successful in taking the Georgia seat, which would maintain the existing 50-50 party split in the upper chamber.
On the Republican side, despite a minor challenge in last week’s leadership elections, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) continues on as minority leader.
Due to retirements, we will likely see some new faces in committee leadership posts.
As Senate historians explain, the Senate committee assignment process is guided by Senate rules and by party rules and practices. What that means is that “senators are formally elected to standing committees by the entire membership of the Senate, but in practice each party conference is largely responsible for determining which of its members will sit on each committee.” Seniority plays a part in who is selected, but that is not the only factor. Indeed, “Since the 1950s, Senate and party rules have gradually changed to distribute coveted committee seats more broadly throughout each party conference.”
Republicans also have some unique rules:
Senators on individual committees vote by secret ballot for their committee's chair, irrespective of seniority;
There is a six-year term limit on the service of chairs and ranking members; and
Republicans, like Democrats, say that when a state is represented by two senators of the same party, the two may not serve together on the same committee.
As designed by the founders, the U.S. Senate was to be the chamber where cooler heads prevailed. If leadership and committee decisions are any indicator, it looks like that’s exactly what we will have in the 118th Congress.