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Republicans narrowly retake control of the House, setting up divided government

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks with reporters as he leaves a House Republican Caucus Meeting for the House Floor on Capitol Hill on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Kent Nishimura
/
Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks with reporters as he leaves a House Republican Caucus Meeting for the House Floor on Capitol Hill on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022 in Washington, DC.

It wasn't the red wave many top Republicans predicted, but the GOP eked out enough wins in contested seats to gain control of the House of Representatives, according to The Associated Press. With some races still not called a week after Election Day, Republicans picked up at least 218 seats, and will take over the chamber next year with GOP leaders facing blowback about failing to deliver in what many considered a favorable political environment for their party.

The potentially single-digit margin ushers in a new era of divided government in Washington. Going into the 2022 midterm elections, Democrats knew historic trends would favor that the party out of power gains seats. House Democrats' razor-thin five-seat majority, plus a significant number of retirements by veteran members, set up an uphill battle for them to retain power. Yet despite those historical headwinds, Democrats did much better than expected in this year's midterms and kept control of the Senate.

A Republican House will likely clash on most issues with a Democratic Senate in 2023, with bitter fights over basic functions like funding the government threatening to paralyze Washington.

GOP candidates hoped to capitalize on voter frustration with the rising costs of groceries and gas, framing the election as a referendum on President Joe Biden and his party's rule of both the White House and Congress. But voters in exit polls indicated other issues like abortion rights and protecting democracy factored into their decisions at the ballot box. Redistricting in New York and Florida also helped the GOP overcome lackluster results in most of the races rated as toss-ups.

The last time the president and top congressional leaders were from different parties was 2019, when Democrats regained control of the House in the 2018 midterms, two years after former President Donald Trump was elected president.

A new House Republican majority will mean Biden's legislative agenda is essentially dead, unless he can find bipartisan support for some narrowly crafted proposals. Biden's focus during the next two years of his presidency will likely be spent defending his signature accomplishments, like a bill lowering prescription drug prices and investing hundreds of billions of dollars to tackle climate change. GOP lawmakers have already said they want to roll back some of Biden's programs, or defund many of them.

The Biden White House will also face an onslaught of investigations on a wide range of issues. Top GOP members on the House Oversight and Judiciary committees have already said they plan to probe the business dealings of Biden's son, Hunter Biden, the president's border policies, the origins of the coronavirus and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. But because the margin is so slim there may be pressure from more moderate Republicans to pull back on some of the probes and instead focus on issues that show a GOP chamber can govern.

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New speaker of the House, new agenda

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is poised to take the gavel as speaker in January when the new Congress is sworn in and the full chamber votes on the top position, which is second in line to the presidency, after the vice president. McCarthy is a longtime ally of Trump and will manage a GOP conference with many members largely loyal to Trump.

But even though McCarthy won an internal vote for the post this week, he doesn't have the 218 votes now that he will need in the public vote on Jan. 3, when the new Congress elects a speaker.

McCarthy first ran for speaker in 2015 to succeed Speaker John Boehner, who was retiring. But he abruptly withdrew from the race, a sign he recognized he didn't have the votes. He went on to serve as House Speaker Paul Ryan's No. 2 at the leadership table, and since then has developed close relationships with many of the conservatives who derailed his initial bid for the top slot. McCarthy is regarded as skilled at developing personal relationships across his conference after years of criss-crossing the country campaigning and raising money for GOP candidates. But he has not developed much of a record as a legislator.

McCarthy and top GOP leaders unveiled their agenda, called a "Commitment to America" in September. It focuses on broad goals in four areas: the economy, security, personal freedom and government accountability.

Ohio Rep Jim. Jordan, who is expected to take the gavel as the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, sent letters to Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher Wray the week before the election outlining lengthy lists of materials the panel was seeking and directing the agency heads to preserve materials ahead of continuing probes in 2023.

Republicans also plan to change House rules that currently allow for proxy voting — a practice Democrats put into place during the coronavirus pandemic. They also pledge to remove the magnetometers that were placed at entrances to the House floor following the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

Questions about future of Democratic leaders, left over business

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., 82, has not announced whether she will run to lead the House Democratic Caucus. In 2007, Pelosi became the first woman to be speaker, shattering the so-called marble ceiling in Congress. She took the gavel a second time in 2019, after leading her party back to the majority, but indicated that she would abide by a pledge that helped her secure the votes for speaker to term limit her tenure in leadership. Many newer members have expressed support for paving the way for a new, likely younger Democrat to take the helm of the caucus. The current caucus chair, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., is expected to run for the post as minority leader if Pelosi decides to retire.

But Democrats' strong performance in the midterms has frozen any movement to replace Pelosi. She says some of her colleagues are urging her to run again for the top leadership post, and says the attack on her husband Paul Pelosi roughly 10 days before the election will impact her decision.

Before Republicans take control of the chamber, Congress is already preparing for a lame duck session that is expected to stretch into the end of the year. Leaders hope to finalize a bipartisan budget deal to fund government agencies through the rest of the fiscal year and avoid a possible government shutdown. Pelosi also indicated that she would like Congress to raise the debt limit to avoid any contentious debate and threat of default early next year.

Democratic leaders also plan to pass legislation that would clarify how Congress certifies the results of presidential elections with a revamp of the Electoral Count Act, a law first enacted in 1887. Confusion over provisions of the law was exploited by Trump and his allies on Jan. 6, 2021 and lawmakers say the new law is needed to prevent another attack on the Capitol.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.