What the Democrats will do with control of the House

The Democratic Party capitalized on anger toward President Trump to unite progressive and moderate voters and win back control of the House of Representatives on Tuesday. These strands of the Democratic coalition have different demands and expectations from the leadership they just elected.

The 116th Congress, which will be sworn in on Jan. 3, 2019, is expected to act as a check on Trump during the final two years of his current term in the White House.

There’s precedent from other recent midterm elections. In 1994, Republicans flipped the House by focusing on allegations of scandals in the Clinton administration. In 2006, George W. Bush’s unpopular Iraq War and lackluster Hurricane Katrina response led Democrats to a sweeping victory in the House and Senate, as well as a majority of state governorships and state legislatures. In 2010, the tea party movement’s disdain for Barack Obama’s health care plan catapulted the Republicans to big victories. If history is any indicator, Democrats will be appealing for cooperation from the other party, while digging in their heels on legislation. During the last two years of Republican control of the House, little or nothing of the Democratic agenda even came to the floor for a vote.

Democrats in Congress are being encouraged by the party’s left wing to hammer the Trump administration with nonstop hearings and investigations, but to keep their majority they will need to address issues that more directly affect the American people. After riding enthusiasm from progressives to victory, they cannot drift too far left if they want to hold onto the swing voters needed to win back the White House in 2020.

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

Democratic leaders are already promising a new era of bipartisanship, but experts expect them to pursue all sorts of legislation that has little chance of passing the the Republican-controlled Senate or get signed into law by Trump: strengthening gun control, reforming immigration, undoing GOP tax cuts, and shoring up the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that the availability and cost of health care was the most important issue in the campaign for American families.

“When we put together our ‘For the People’ agenda, our first priority was to lower health care costs by lowering the cost of prescription drugs,” Pelosi said at a press conference on Capitol Hill.

According to Pelosi, Democrats in Congress will fight for good-paying jobs, invest in American infrastructure, and ensure the integrity of government by reducing the role of “dark money” in the political process.

“That was our agenda. Our candidates ran with it. But health care, health care, health care in every household in America is an important issue,” she continued.

Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said throwing out these proposals will be a way of directing the conversation and setting the agenda for the next presidential election. He said Democratic proposals will hint at what they would actually accomplish if they manage to win control of the White House and both houses of Congress in 2020. He doesn’t have much hope for big bipartisan legislation.

“I think the leadership coming in will feel emboldened and part of the mandate will be a check on the president, so if Speaker Pelosi ­— assuming she will be the speaker — reaches a point where the president for some reason has reached out to her, it would be very hard given how her party feels to all of a sudden give him legislation that he can brag about,” Zelizer told Yahoo News.

The identity of the new Democratic House speaker is uncertain, because many Democratic candidates in this year’s midterms distanced themselves from Pelosi in an effort to appeal to more moderate voters. Especially for freshman representatives, it’s unlikely they will want to begin their tenure by breaking such a central promise.

Zelizer said it’s equally unlikely that Trump will suddenly become amenable to cross-party dialogue and compromise.

“That’s not what he’s about. He’s very clear that he will govern as a partisan. He’s not going to move to the center. I think the dynamics for both of them push against bipartisanship. That’s my sense,” Zelizer said.

Matthew Dallek, a political historian at George Washington University, has similar expectations for the new Congress. He said in addition to the strong oversight Democrats will apply to Trump and his Cabinet over his tax returns, alleged corruption and Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, the Democrats will pass legislation with messaging around health care, anti-corruption initiatives, and jobs. He said these will “ultimately be statements of principle and symbolic” but that it’s conceivable that Democrats will seek common ground on discrete issues such as trade, opioids, infrastructure or veterans affairs.

“I would not expect an outbreak of bipartisanship, of course, and it would be surprising if House Democrats were able to reach agreements on major issues with Trump’s White House,” Dallek told Yahoo News. “Still, the Democrats may have some incentive, politically and ideologically, to demonstrate that they are serious about governing and working in select areas to move the country forward.”

Of course, the possibility of impeachment is an issue. Some prominent Democrats like Rep. Maxine Waters, R-Calif., who won her reelection by a landslide, and billionaire activist Tom Steyer have called for Trump’s impeachment. But this is an extremely delicate issue and Democrats would need to build a compelling case slowly before presenting it to the American people. According to CNN’s national exit polls, 40 percent of midterm voters — and 77 percent of self-identified Democrats — would support impeachment.

Ron Klain, a Democratic operative who served as a senior White House aide for Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post that the House majority should dedicate its first 100 days to five pieces of legislation: a bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 and restore overtime pay protections, a bill to strengthen Obamacare, a bill to restore the Voting Rights Act and fight GOP voter suppression, an infrastructure bill without pork, and a bill that grants legal status to DACA recipients, often called “Dreamers.”

“Yes, this leaves much still undone. Child care. Job training. College assistance. Criminal-justice reform. Campaign finance reform. And so much more. These are important, too. But Democrats need a focused agenda of quickly actionable items for the first 100 days,” Klain wrote. “After that, they will have at least another 630 days in control of the House — and plenty of time for investigations.”

There is a hunger among liberals for the newly elected 116th Congress to hold Trump accountable for corruption in his administration that the outgoing 115th Congress brushed off. But pushing too hard too soon could open the Democrats up to accusations of scandal-mongering and hyper-partisanship — the same charges leveled at the Republicans during the Benghazi controversy. If Democrats focus more on partisan points than substantive issues, they may end up bolstering their support among the more ideological faction of their party at the expense of the middle, which helped them in this election, and thus compounding political polarization.

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