House Members won’t know until at least Wednesday who the president will be in January or what the chamber’s partisan makeup will be in 2005. But lawmakers and aides from both sides of aisle feel confident enough to make one prediction — the next Congress will be even more contentious than this one.
With a potential ethics war, a hard-fought 2006 election and controversial topics like Social Security and tax reform on the horizon, Republicans and Democrats alike agree that all the ingredients are present for open partisan warfare beginning in January.
“I think it’s going to be a very ugly 109th Congress,” predicted a senior House GOP leadership aide.
At this point, strategists in both parties do not expect the House to change hands in November, though the jury is still out on which side will pick up seats.
More important than the House ratio, Democratic aides said the degree of hostility in the chamber will rest on who wins the White House on Tuesday.
They suggested that if Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) prevails, Republicans will spend the next two years trying to undermine his influence and attack his character, just as they did when Bill Clinton was in office. They also anticipate the GOP will launch a series of investigations and charges against Kerry immediately upon him taking office.
Meanwhile, if President Bush and House Republicans remain in power, Democrats expect the GOP to run roughshod over them given the Republican president is a lame duck facing no political consequences. Democrats will be ever more angry that Bush survived the election despite what they perceive as a mess in Iraq, a poor economy and an ethically challenged Congress, several Democratic aides said.
“It will get worse, not better,” said one Democratic leadership aide.
“It will be a bruising 109th Congress,” predicted another top Democratic aide. “The bruising will come from the Republicans if they remain in power because there will be even less of a reason to work with the minority party.”
Democrats envision that they would have even fewer seats at the table under another two years of Republican control. The minority often has complained about being shut out of the debate, barred from offering amendments and participating in conference committees.
On the Republican side, another four years for Bush could be a mixed blessing for the party in the House.
“People feel like ’06 is going to be a real make-or-break election,” said another Republican leadership aide. “That of course means that there’s really one year to get everything done that will position Members to get re-elected.”
And while Republicans obviously hope Bush wins, a victory could add to tension in the House as Republicans would become even more concerned about their prospects on the next Election Day.
“If the president wins it will be harder for us to defend seats because we won’t have a foil,” said the second GOP aide.
While Democrats remain angry about how they were treated by the majority in this Congress, Republicans are still seething about the ethics committee’s two admonishments of Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
The second admonishment came in response to an ethics complaint filed by lame-duck Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas) in the wake of the DeLay-led redistricting effort in the Lone Star State.
Although Democrats vehemently deny it, Republicans believe Bell’s complaint was part of a campaign orchestrated by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to tear DeLay down. When the 109th is gaveled into session, the GOP may seek revenge.
“It’s going to be ugly with the ethics process,” predicted a GOP aide. “Democrats have opened a Pandora’s box. I think that Pelosi and Hoyer will find themselves to be scrutinized.”
“It just shows you clearly their mentality,” said one Democratic leadership aide. “Their mentality is absolute power in the House because they can get away with anything and if called on it they will retaliate.”
Republicans long have hinted they would go after Pelosi if Democrats filed ethics complaints against them. Pelosi has challenged them to “bring it on.”
“They’ve said they’d do it before,” said a well-placed Democratic leadership staffer. “We haven’t brought anything frivolous. We haven’t brought anything. Leadership hasn’t brought any complaints. That’s a sad statement on them if that’s what they do.”
As Republicans fume about Bell’s ethics complaint, Democrats remain angry about DeLay’s Texas redistricting effort that put five of their incumbents in peril this cycle. And some Democrats argue that Texas may have single-handedly blocked their chances of winning back the House this year.
“I don’t know how much more contentious it can get,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.). “But I do think that it is true [that more acrimony is ahead] given the nature of the battle that’s gone on in this election and in light of Texas. Whatever comes out of Texas will undoubtedly have a major impact on the election.”
Even as interparty relations in the House will likely worsen, Republicans and Democrats each have their own internal changes to sort through in the 109th Congress.
On the House Republican front, every member of the party’s top leadership tier is expected to be re-elected when lawmakers convene in mid-November to organize for the 109th Congress.
Barring a surprise resignation, the only position that could become vacant is the chairmanship of the Republican Policy Committee. Rep. Christopher Cox (Calif.) could choose — or be required — to surrender that post if he retains the gavel of the Homeland Security Committee, which will have its future status and jurisdiction determined in January.
If the RPC chairmanship does come open, Rep. John Shadegg (Ariz.) has positioned himself to make a strong run at succeeding Cox. The former Republican Study Committee chairman is the only candidate for the post so far to make his interest publicly known, and he has already lined up the backing of several senior Members.
At the National Republican Congressional Committee, Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) is expected to keep the job for one more cycle barring an unexpected devastating GOP setback on Tuesday.
At the committee level, a handful of key gavels will be up for grabs when the Steering Committee convenes in January.
The marquee race has been the one to take over the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee, where Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) will be forced by term limits to surrender the gavel.
Three senior GOP members of the panel — Reps. Ralph Regula (Ohio), Jerry Lewis (Calif.) and Hal Rogers (Ky.) — have spent the 108th Congress lobbying their colleagues and doling out several hundred thousand dollars apiece to GOP candidates in order to win support for the post.
Like Young, Rules Chairman David Dreier (Calif.) also is term-limited at the end of 2004. The post is Speaker-appointed, and leadership aides said they saw the two most likely scenarios as 1) Dreier being granted a waiver to remain as chairman; or 2) Rep. Doc Hastings (Wash.) being given the position over a handful of more senior lawmakers.
The only other permanent panel that could see a change at the top is the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Chairman Chris Smith (N.J.) has two more years before he would face term limits, but his advocacy for more veterans funding has angered leaders enough that aides say there is a legitimate chance his gavel will be taken away in January.
If that occurs, Rep. Steve Buyer (Ind.) is seen as the most likely candidate to take his place.
Assuming they remain in the minority, Democrats are expecting the status quo in the 109th when it comes to their leadership lineup. Pelosi, Hoyer, Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) and Vice Chairman James Clyburn (S.C.) have made clear they will stand for another two-year term in their positions.
Aides and Members have suggested that the pecking order would remain intact, even if Democrats fail to make gains, believing the leadership cannot be penalized after just two years in office and that it did all it could to regain the majority.
“Certainly, if we don’t win back the House there will be disappointed Members,” Crowley said. “Generally, we will all feel disappointed, but if you look at the present leadership, the one thing leadership can do on Nov. 3 is sleep well knowing they’ve done everything they could to win back the House.”
In a dream scenario in which they take back the House, aides said Pelosi, Hoyer, Menendez and Clyburn are almost assured a promotion. Pelosi has said she would run for Speaker, while Hoyer would be vying for Majority Leader, Menendez for Majority Whip and Clyburn for Caucus chairman.
The real race would come at the bottom of the leadership ladder, where several ambitious Members could run for vice chairman of the Caucus, including Reps. Crowley, Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), Diana DeGette (Colo.) or John Larson (Conn.).
Another position to watch for next Congress will be the chairmanship of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Rep. Robert Matsui (Calif.) has all but said he isn’t interested in keeping the job for another cycle.
According to sources, Pelosi is looking at several Members for the job including Emanuel, Schakowsky, fellow California Rep. Mike Thompson, Rep. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Kerry ally Rep. Ed Markey (Mass.).
On the committee level, the status of several key jobs will depend on Tuesday’s election results.
The ranking member positions on the Rules and Agriculture committees could open up if Reps. Martin Frost (Texas) and Charlie Stenholm (Texas), respectively, lose their difficult re-election bids.
Reps. Louise Slaughter (N.Y.) is next in seniority on the Rules Committee and likely to replace Frost, while Rep. Collin Peterson (Minn.) is the No. 2 Democrat on Agriculture.