WASHINGTON — Congress is returning to an extremely volatile post-election landscape, with control of the House still undecided, party leadership in flux and a potentially consequential lame-duck session with legislation on gay marriage, Ukraine and government funding.
Newly elected members of Congress arrived for Monday’s orientation amid jarring disappointments for Republicans, setting up rocky internal party leadership elections for GOP leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. Republicans suffered one of the most disappointing midterm outcomes in decades when a mighty red wave forecast for the House never hit.
Democrats performed better than expected, keeping narrow control of the Senate and pressing a long shot race for the House. But they, too, face leadership turmoil as Republicans pick up House seats toward majority control that would threaten Speaker Nancy Pelosi's gavel.
“There are all kinds of ways to exert influence,” Pelosi said Sunday, deflecting questions about her future if Democrats lose control of the House. “Speaker has awesome power, but I will always have influence.”
It's a changed place on Capitol Hill in the aftermath of the first election since the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, with the Republican Party split over its ties to former President Donald Trump, Democrats eyeing generational leadership changes, and Biden with just weeks to accomplish goals with guaranteed Democratic control of Washington. Much of the action will be playing out behind closed doors in private caucus meetings.
Against this backdrop, McCarthy has tried to tamp down unrest as he asked his GOP colleagues for their support ahead of Tuesday's closed-door leadership elections, which would put him in line to take the House speaker’s gavel from Pelosi, D-Calif., if Republicans flip majority control.
“I will be a listener every bit as much as a Speaker, striving to build consensus from the bottom-up rather than commanding the agenda from the top-down,” McCarthy, R-Calif., wrote in a letter to his GOP colleagues.
But McCarthy enters the speaker’s race a weakened leader, confronted by his party’s losses and demands from his restive right-flank, led by the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus and its ties with Trump. The former president backs McCarthy for speaker, but Freedom Caucus lawmakers are calling for elections to be postponed.
“I certainly don’t think we should have elections before we have everything counted and know what our numbers are," said Freedom Caucus member Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas.
Among the newly elected lawmakers, Republican Cory Mills, an Army combat veteran who won an open seat in Florida, said: “You’ve got actual races that haven’t been called yet and you want to go out and have leadership votes?”
But Mike Lawler, who delivered a stunning defeat in New York to Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the chair of the Democrats' campaign committee, said McCarthy has "my full support.”
The tumult playing out on Capitol Hill comes as Trump is poised to announce his 2024 bid for the White House on Tuesday. The GOP is torn between those remaining loyal to the former president and those who blame him for the midterm losses and prefer to move on from his “Make America Great Again” brand. Some lawmakers begged off from joining Trump at his Mar-A-Lago club for the announcement because of their own work on Capitol Hill.
"The Republican Party has a choice,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Sunday. “I say to the Republican senators and to Leader McConnell, we are willing to work with you to get things done for the American people.”
Funding to keep the government running past a Dec. 16 funding deadline, aid for Ukraine and bipartisan legislation that would safeguard same-sex marriages from potential Supreme Court challenges in states where they have been legal are all top priorities in the final weeks of the year.
But McConnell faces his own intraparty turmoil ahead of Wednesday's closed-door leadership race, which his right flank also wants postponed as they review what went wrong in the midterm elections in general and the Georgia race now heading toward a Dec. 6 runoff.
"We need to have serious discussions," said a draft letter led by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and signed by a handful of other GOP senators.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., put it more bluntly in a tweet: “The old party is dead. Time to bury it. Build something new.”
Democrats have pushed their own internal elections off until after Thanksgiving, at which time Pelosi has said she will decide whether she would seek to stay on as party leader.
A younger generation of Democrats has been eager to take the reins in the House once Pelosi and top leaders Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Jim Clyburn of South Carolina decide if they will stay or go.
At the same time, lawmakers are buckling in for a final weekslong legislative sprint of this session — potentially the last chance Biden will have with Democratic control of Congress and monopoly party power in Washington.
On the agenda ahead are must-do bills — most prominently funding to keep the government running or risk a federal shutdown. Conservatives are eager to use the December funding deadline to begin to extract their policy priorities from McCarthy, particularly their promises to slash spending and refuse to raise the nation’s debt limit.
The fiscal showdown, also expected to include a round of disaster funding for hurricane-hit Florida and other areas, could be a preview of the what’s next in the new year.
The outgoing Congress is also working swiftly to ensure another round of funding for Ukraine to fight Russia, particularly after McCarthy signaled Republicans will refuse to provide a “blank check” for the overseas expenditure.
One top priority of Biden and his party is post-Jan. 6 legislation to modernize the Electoral Count Act, an update to the late 19th century law.
Also a landmark bill that would require recognition of same sex and interracial marriages in states where they are legal has gained support from both parties, amid concerns the Supreme Court could roll back marriage protections. It is promised for a Senate vote after already passing the House.
Legislation helping young immigrants known as Dreamers in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain in the U.S. also is under consideration.