Rep. Steve Chabot has some perspective on the dynamics that will face lawmakers when a divided Congress starts work in January.
“Clearly, politics will enter into this. There will be a lot of finger pointing and people trying to blame other people for what did or didn’t happen,” said Chabot, R-Cincinnati. “Unfortunately as one member having been through this before — I’ve been in the majority and I’ve been in the minority — I think it’s our responsibility to try to work for the public. I’m committed to do that. Certainly it can be ugly, no question about that.”
The exact numbers aren’t determined yet, but as a result of the Nov. 6 midterm elections, Democrats will run the House next year and Republicans will control the Senate.
“We can get things done,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, of the two sides working together.
Former Republican congressman David Hobson of Springfield called it an “opportune time to see if they can make this work.”
But despite the “can’t we all just get along” rhetoric, analysts predict the divided Congress will be hard-pressed to register any sweeping accomplishments. Instead, lawmakers are more likely find themselves at a impasse over the budget, mounting deficits, or a new North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada.
Legislation on immigration and infrastructure improvements may too grind to a halt.
“Based on the past two years, I have little, if any, expectations that Congress will get anything done in the next two years,” said James Manley, a onetime adviser to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Tony Fratto, who served as deputy White House press secretary for President George W. Bush, said “when the House and Senate are split, everything breaks down. You can’t get budgets passed” which means “you are trying to run government without a blueprint.”
Analysts say one way to break the impasse is for Trump to adopt a more hands-on approach to legislating, though no one is too confident he will do so.
Some also believe House Democrats could overplay their hand with two years of investigations into Trump’s financial holdings and whether he and his aides colluded with Russian intelligence in 2016 to damage the presidential campaign of Democrat Hillary Clinton.
During an interview on CNBC, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said if House Democrats “decide to make it two years of investigations and perhaps even an impeachment proceeding, we won’t get much done as a country. I think the American people won’t be very happy.”
Politics could force some unusual alliances, according to a former Senate Democratic staffer who asked to remain anonymous. A moderate Republican like Susan Collins of Maine, who faces re-election in 2020, may find it politically beneficial to work with Democrats on overhauling immigration or “fixing or improving some of the things” in the 2010 health law known as Obamacare, the staffer said.
“It depends on whether moderates in the Senate think they need to run with Trump or not,” she said.
Can it work?
Divided government in the past has cobbled together some sweeping agreements. Republican President Dwight Eisenhower collaborated with a Democratic Congress in 1956 to produce the interstate highway system, which led to the construction of today’s freeways across the country.
But except for a major overhaul of the income tax code in 1986, a divided House and Senate has rarely reached agreement on matters of consequence.
Americans were given a front-row seat on the perils of divided government in 2013 when intense fighting between a Republican House and a Democratic-controlled Senate over extending tax cuts and reducing spending nearly plunged the nation’s financial system into the abyss. Only a New Years’ Day vote by Congress prevented a calamity.
Some argue that Senate rules make it difficult to produce sweeping new laws. Under those rules, a minority of 41 senators can rely on parliamentary delaying tactics to block any bill they oppose.
“The House can pass whatever it wants, but the sad reality is unless you get 60 votes in the Senate, very little will get done,” Manley said.
Hobson said the key is Trump’s desire to be re-elected in 2020. “He has two approaches: One, he can be totally negative and say (Democrats) are all worthless,” Hobson said. “On the other hand, he can make some deals,” and brag about his accomplishments when he runs for re-election.
Some point with nostalgia toward the 1990s when President Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress agreed to an overhaul of the nation’s welfare system. But whatever temporary unity existed collapsed when House Republicans impeached Clinton for lying under oath for having sex with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Chabot, who voted in favor of impeachment as a second-term congressman in 1998, said neither side wants to have governing grind to a halt.
“The goal is to have both sides find common ground and work together for what’s in the best interest of the country and the American public,” he said.
Jessica Wehrman of the Washington Bureau contributed to this story.