What happens now that Democrats will retake the House

WASHINGTON — After eight years in the minority, Democrats are set to regain control of the House in January, bringing divided government — and ambitious oversight — back to a deeply polarized Washington.

Unlike the last time they held the levers of power in the lower chamber, they won't have a Democratic Senate or president to help turn their legislative dreams into reality. What they will have: very real subpoena power — and a long list of potential executive branch targets.

When they assume the majority early next year, Democrats are planning to make up for lost time on both fronts — though some of the most ambitious items on their agenda are likely to run into a few reality-based roadblocks.

They'll be introducing a wave of policy proposals demonstrating the party's priorities on a range of issues, despite the vanishingly small odds that the GOP-controlled Senate would take up any of the bills — and even smaller odds that President Donald Trump would sign them into law.

Donna Shalala wins Florida House seat
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Donna Shalala wins Florida House seat
Former President Barack Obama, second from right, hugs Congressional candidate Donna Shalala, second from left, during a campaign rally, with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, left, and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., right, Friday, Nov. 2, 2018, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
FILE- In this Oct. 17, 2018 file photo Florida Democratic congressional candidate Donna Shalala, speaks to volunteers in Coral Gables, Fla. Shalala is facing GOP candidate Maria Elvira Salazar. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)
Florida Democratic congressional candidate Donna Shalala, right, poses for a selfie before a forum on education sponsored by the Women's Fund, Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Florida Democratic congressional candidate Donna Shalala arrives for a forum on education sponsored by the Women's Fund, Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Florida Democratic congressional candidate Donna Shalala, center, listens during a forum on education sponsored by the Women's Fund, Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Florida Democratic congressional candidates Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, left, Donna Shalala, center, and Mary Barzee Flores, right, share a laugh as they participate in a news conference against a Republican lawsuit that seeks to end protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions, at the Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Democratic candidate for Congress Donna Shalala speaks with supporters during watch party on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018, in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Florida Democratic congressional candidate Donna Shalala attends a protest at the Miami International Airport on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018, in Miami. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Democratic candidate for Congress Donna Shalala's wrist bands fill tables for supporters at a local restaurant Ball and Chain before Shalala speaks during watch party on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018, in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

More concretely, they'll be flexing their new investigative muscles with a focus on ethical questions swirling around the president, his finances, and multiple members of his Cabinet — even though they're likely to face legal battles and other pushback that may significantly slow or even stop the progress of some of their highest-priority likely probes.

Even so, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who is expected to become the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has said that he wants to make sure no stone was left unturned in the GOP's investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election.

Other committees — including Oversight and Government Reform, Judiciary and Ways and Means — are also expected to pursue investigations into the administration.

The expected chairman of Judiciary, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., told MSNBC's Ari Melber Tuesday night that "all options are on the table" if Trump tries to "sabotage" the Russia probe or fires "key people" or abuses the pardon power.

"We'll use subpoena power if we have to, when we have to," he said.

Candidates casting their votes during the 2018 midterm election
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Candidates casting their votes during the 2018 midterm election
Democratic candidate Christine Hallquist votes during the midterm election in Hyde Park, Vermont, U.S. November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Caleb Kenna
Democratic Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez arrives to vote in the midterm elections in the Bronx, New York City, U.S., November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
Missouri Attorney General and Republican U.S. Senate candidate Josh Hawley, left, checks in to the polling place before voting, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)
U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX), candidate for U.S. Senate arrives with his family to vote in the 2018 midterm elections in El Paso, Texas, U.S., November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Republican candidate for Governor Ron DeSantis arrives to vote, carrying his daughter Madison, in the midterm elections at a polling place in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, U.S., November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Democratic congressional candidate Ilhan Omar walks to the vote counting machine after filling out her ballot during midterm elections in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Miller
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, center, carrying son Davis, age 16 months, leaves the polling place after voting with wife R. Jai, right, during midterm elections in Tallahassee, Florida, U.S. November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Colin Hackley TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Alaska independent U.S. House candidate Alyse Galvin smiles after emerging from a voting booth on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Anchorage, Alaska. Galvin, who arrived at the polling location with her family, is challenging Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young for Alaska's lone U.S. House seat. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)
California gubernatorial Democratic candidate Gavin Newsom walks with his daughter, Montana, 9, to turn his ballot after voting Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Larkspur, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp gives the thumbs up sign as he and youngest daughter Amy Porter leave after voting Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Winterville, Ga. Kemp is in a close race with Democrat Stacey Abrams. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Virginia Republican senatorial candidate Corey Stewart, center, and his wife Maria Stewart, left, voting at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Woodbridge, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) Wife Maria Stewart
Marty Nothstein, Republican candidate in Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District, arrive at his polling station to vote Tuesday Nov. 6, 2018, in New Tripoli, Pa. Nothstein is facing Democrat Susan Wild for the seat held by Charlie Dent who retired. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)
Anthony Brindisi, left, Democratic candidate for New York's 22nd Congressional District, casts his vote at Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, N.Y., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. Brindisi, a Democratic Assemblyman, is hoping to defeat Republican Congresswoman Claudia Tenney in New York's 22nd Congressional District race. Pictured at right are his wife, Erica McGovern Brindisi, and his daughter, Lily Grace Brindisi. (AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth)
Democratic congressional candidate Amy McGrath checks in with poll workers before voting on Election Day in Georgetown, Ky., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)
Haley Stevens, candidate for Michigan's 11th Congressional District, gives a thumbs up as exits her polling place Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Rochester Hills, Mich. Stevens is running against Lena Epstein. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Candidate for Pennsylvania's 1st Congressional District Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., gestures after casting his ballot in Langhorne, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
California gubernatorial Democratic candidate Gavin Newsom ties the shoe laces of his son Hunter, 7, as his son, Dutch, 2, looks on after voting Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Larkspur, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Dana Balter, candidate for the House of Representatives in New York's 24th Congressional District, applies her "I Voted" sticker after casting her vote in Syracuse, N.Y., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)
AGUA DULCE, CA - NOVEMBER 06: Democratic Congressional candidate Katie Hill (L) shakes hands with a poll worker after casting her ballot at a polling place in California's 25th Congressional district on November 6, 2018 in Agua Dulce, California. Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Knight is competing against Hill for his seat in the district in a close race. Political races across the country are being hotly contested for House and Senate seats. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
COSTA MESA, CA - NOVEMBER 06: Longtime Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) passes people heading toward a polling place as he walks with family members after dropping off his ballot on November 6, 2018 in Costa Mesa, California. According to recent polling, Rohrabacher and Democratic challenger Harley Rouda are in a virtual tie to represent the 48th Congressional district. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
COLUMBIA, MO - NOVEMBER 06: Missouri's Republican U.S. Senate Candidate Josh Hawley casts his vote on election day at The Crossings Church on November 6, 2018 in Columbia, Missouri. Hawley, the current Missouri Attorney General, is hoping to unseat current Democratic incumbent Senator Claire McCaskill. (Photo by Michael Thomas/Getty Images)
TURLOCK, CA - NOVEMBER 06: Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham of California's 10th Congressional District casts his vote at the Berkeley Ave Baptist Church on November 6, 2018 in Turlock, California. Denham, a four-term Republican incumbent and Air Force veteran, is competing against Democratic challenger Josh Harder in one of seven closely-contested congressional races currently held by the GOP in California won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 as the Democrats hope to regain control of the House in the midterm elections. (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)
WHITMAN, MA - NOVEMBER 6: Republican U.S. Senate candidate Geoff Diehl and his wife KathyJo Boss leave Whitman Town Hall in Whitman, MA after casting their votes on Election Day, Nov. 6, 2018. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Democratic congressional candidate Cindy Axne gets her ballot for the midterm elections at her polling station in West Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Scott Morgan
Democratic congressional candidate running in the 49th district Mike Levin gets an "I Voted" sticker put on by his wife Chrissy after they voted during midterm elections in San Juan Capistrano, California, U.S. November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake
Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer shakes hands after voting in midterm election at her polling station at the St. Paul Lutheran Church in East Lansing, Michigan, U.S. November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jeff Kowalsky
Democratic U.S. congressional candidate Rashida Tlaib points to her 'I voted' sticker after voting during the midterm election in Detroit, Michigan, U.S. November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. Democratic Congressional candidate Jahana Hayes waits in line to fill out her ballot to vote at a voting station during the midterm election in Wolcott, Connecticut, U.S., November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Michelle McLoughlin

And Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., expected to become chairman of the Oversight panel, plans to look into the administration's immigration and child separation policies, financial conflicts of interest, possible violations of the Constitution's emoluments clause, and voter suppression efforts, to name just a few entries on a long list of potential targets.

The first step in that process: staffing up a new investigative army. In 2011, for example, the number of Republican staff members on the Oversight Committee quickly shot from 40 to 80.

"Our staff doubled overnight," said Kurt Bardella, who served as deputy communications director and senior adviser to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., when he led the Oversight Committee in 2011. "You really can't underestimate the amount of manpower you really get when you're in the majority for this particular committee, which enables you to conduct five, six, seven, eight investigations simultaneously."

Ways and Means is one of several committees that could seek to obtain President Trump's tax returns, which he has refused to release since his presidential campaign, saying he is under audit by the IRS. According to a Democratic aide the committee — along with the Senate Finance Committee and the Joint Committee on Taxation — has the ability to request a person's tax returns under the tax code.

The chairman could submit a written request to the IRS to provide the information. If the Treasury Department were to deny it, House Democrats would have to decide whether to pursue the tax returns through a legal route. If they are obtained, the chairman would have to designate the panel's members as "agents" to read the returns. They would then have to vote to make the documents public and report them to the full House.

Severe weather dampens Election Day
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Severe weather dampens Election Day
Tara Young is photographed at John F. Kennedy High School polling place during election day, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Silver Spring, Md. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Democratic candidate for Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District Kara Eastman and her daughter Sabina arrive to the Blue Line Cafe in Omaha, Neb., their first stop on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. Eastman is running against Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Poll worker Anthony Boddie, right, prepares for his precinct to open to voters on election day in Atlanta, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Tyra Moreland directs voters away from their usual polling place at an Atlanta library to a new one about two miles away during election day on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. Long lines and malfunctioning machines marred the first hours of voting in some precincts across the country Tuesday. Some of the biggest problems were in Georgia, a state with a hotly contested gubernatorial election, where some voters reported waiting up to three hours to vote. (AP Photo/ Janelle Cogan)
Visitors walk past the Capitol on a rainy Election Day morning in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Voters cast their ballots at a polling site on election day in Atlanta, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 6: Jennifer Wexton, Democratic candidate for Virginia's 10th district, waits in the rain to speak to voters at the Clarke County Schools office polling location in Berryville, Va., on Election Day, Nov. 6, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 6: A voter arrives at the Old Stone School polling location as a light rain falls in Hillsboro, Va., on Election Day, Nov. 6, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
RICHMOND, VIRGINIA - NOVEMBER 06: Virginia residents line up to vote in the pouring rain at Robious Middle School November 6, 2018 in Midlothian, Virginia. The U.S. holds its midterm elections today, the first time the nation has voted since a divisive 2016 presidential election. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Voters open their umbrellas as they step into the rain as they leave a polling station, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Righteous Jolly and his two-year-old son Rhonin arrive in the rain at his polling voting in Langhorne, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
A voter walks in the rain from her polling place after voting in Langhorne, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
NEW YORK, USA - NOVEMBER 06: Voters wait in the line to cast their votes in the midterm election and hold their umbrellas during rainfall at the Tribeca Indepence Primary School polling station in Manhattan, New York, United States on November 06, 2018. (Photo by Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

It would be far from an easy win: The process, once launched, could drag on for months, or even longer. Publicly, Trump has downplayed any concern over the prospect. "I don't care. They can do whatever they want, and I can do whatever I want," he said Monday of the idea of a drawn-out battle for his tax returns.

However that fight plays out, Democratic leadership has pledged its full support for the general idea of aggressive investigations. Impeachment is another story.

In the run-up to the election, many Democrats avoided discussing the possibility — which, if it were acted on in the House, would likely be politically dead on arrival in the Senate. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., publicly dismissed it as "not a priority" for her party.

While Pelosi, 78, will have to formally be re-elected as the Democratic leader and as speaker of the House, she has repeatedly expressed confidence that she will retake the gavel despite some dissatisfied members who want a new leader.

Rumblings over the last year of a potential challenge to Pelosi for speaker again if Democrats won the House were driven in large part by a relatively small group of Democrats running in predominantly GOP districts. (Asked Tuesday night if she had a message for any candidates in that group who had won election, Pelosi said only: "Congratulations on winning.")

House Democrats have planned to hold leadership elections for their caucus the week after Thanksgiving, which will be when House Democrats will vote to decide whether to re-elect Pelosi as their leader, paving the way for her to likely win the speakership in January when they hold the formal vote on the floor. And unless there are challenges from other members, the current ranking members on committees will likely become the chairs.

The dynamic on Capitol Hill between the two parties will in many ways mirror that after the Republican takeover of the House in 2011, which guarantees one thing: even more gridlock. At the time, Democrats controlled both the White House and Senate and there was only so much lawmakers were able to achieve as the GOP took a series of effectively symbolic votes to dismantle Obamacare and cripple more of President Barack Obama's policy initiatives.

Back then, the new GOP majority came with a new set of headaches: a rebellious group of conservatives who didn't always stand behind GOP leadership. Democrats are wary of encountering their own internal divisions — between the more establishment-oriented and more progressive wings of the party — as they prepare to shape their message ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

"It's easier to be united in the minority than it is to be in the majority," said Nadeam Elshami, who served as chief of staff and senior communications adviser to Pelosi when she served as speaker of the House from 2007 to 2011.

House Democrats waded through internal divisions in 2007 as they debated whether to fund the war in Iraq and the caucus was "absolutely split," Elshami recalled, which led to a rift with President George W. Bush early on after the Democratic-controlled congress passed an emergency spending bill saying that the U.S. had to leave Iraq by a certain date.

"The president vetoed that bill," he said. "Really, off the bat, it wasn't a very good relationship."

Former Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who chaired the House Financial Services Committee at the time, remembers that while he experienced bipartisanship in the beginning, it didn't last long. One of the first major bills he shepherded through his committee was a measure to outlaw bad subprime mortgages and the committee's senior Republican, Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., voted for the bill along with several other GOP members.

"The reaction of the other Republicans on the committee was fury, and after [Bachus] cooperated with us in passing the bill, he was threatened with the loss of his position as ranking member — and from then on, I got no cooperation from any of the Republicans," Frank said.

A similar dynamic is sure to return next year, with some newly-minted members of the Democratic majority unlikely to be in a mood to hand the president any easy political wins — even in areas where their priorities might appear to have some overlap.

Democrats, for instance, are expected to reintroduce their Better Deal legislative plan that includes proposals to lower the cost of prescription drugs and to rebuild the nation's infrastructure, both of which have been policy goals touted by Trump. They'll also be looking to enhance election security and reduce the role of money in politics, which Pelosi recently said would be their first piece of legislation.

While they'll put these proposals forward, there will be only so much they'll be able to accomplish with President Trump in the White House and a GOP-controlled Senate — an approach more likely to lend itself to symbolic votes than actual law.

Technically, leaders from both parties have expressed a willingness to reach bipartisan deals. In reality, the energy to reach them will be limited, especially when Democrats begin to flex their new investigative muscle.

Then there's the baggage of Trump's own Hill talks history, which has been littered with false starts and failed negotiations — meaning the most concrete action out of the new Congress is likely to come in probes of the Trump White House, not compromise with it.

Infrastructure, which fell by the wayside in the first two years of Trump's presidency, has been mentioned as one area with the potential, however remote, for cooperation. House Democrats will likely reintroduce the infrastructure plan that they outlined earlier this year, calling for an investment of $1 trillion to rebuild the nation's roads, bridges, transit, rail, schools and water systems. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has already gotten a head start by recently meeting with White House legislative director Shahira Knight to discuss ideas.

But Republicans — who retain control of the lower chamber for the next several weeks — still have a shot at boosting their own agenda, with one last chance next month to provide significant funding for the president's wall along the U.S.-Mexico border during his first term. Of course, Senate Democrats, who have blocked border wall funding so far this term, are likely to do the same late this year.

And so the Democratic goal of derailing Trump policies such as hard-line immigration proposals and efforts to further roll back environmental regulations will take center stage. Come January, the new House reality is that concrete policy action is less likely to involve advancing Democratic goals than it is blocking the president's priorities.

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