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Shutdown, House Democrats’ divisions set tone as new era of divided government begins

As 116th Congress begins, partial shutdown, rules package, speaker defections cast a pall

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is interviewed by Savannah Guthrie for the Today Show in the Capitol on day 12 of the partial government shutdown on January 2, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is interviewed by Savannah Guthrie for the Today Show in the Capitol on day 12 of the partial government shutdown on January 2, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A new era of divided government has arrived. Democrats officially take control of the House on Thursday as the 116th Congress convenes on the 13th day of a partial government shutdown.

The day’s floor proceedings will offer a preview of what’s to come over the next two years as House Democrats define how far left their caucus will tilt heading into the 2020 cycle and decide whether there’s any room to cooperate with President Donald Trump as he seeks re-election.

The first two roll call votes of the day (aside from the traditional opening day live quorum call) on the speakership and most of the rules package will showcase some fissures in the Democratic Party, while two votes later Thursday on reopening the government are expected to unify Democrats against the Republican president.

The House will convene at noon to start the 116th Congress after a brief morning session to adjourn the 115th Congress sine die. After the quorum call, the first order of business will be to elect the speaker.

Nancy Pelosi — the California Democrat who has held the top House Democratic post for more than 16 years — four of them as the first female speaker — was nominated for the position by the Democratic Caucus in November. But her journey to securing the 218 votes she needs to claim the speaker’s gavel in Thursday’s floor vote wasn’t easy.

Watch: Pelosi seeks a return to regular order, like many before her

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After initially saying she would not put an end date on her speakership, as some of her opponents had been calling for, Pelosi agreed last month to back leadership term limits and abide by the restrictions that would prevent her from serving more than four more years as speaker, regardless of whether the caucus adopts them.

Despite that concession, at least a dozen members are expected to oppose Pelosi during Thursday’s floor vote.

Her opponents include Reps. Kathleen Rice of New York, Kurt Schrader of Oregon, Jim Cooper of Tennessee, Ron Kind of Wisconsin, Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania, and Reps.-elect Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, Jason Crow of Colorado, Abigail Spanberger of Virginia , Max Rose of New York, Jared Golden of Maine, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey.

Rules defections

Adding to the opening-day intraparty drama, at least two Democrats plan to vote against the House rules package crafted by Pelosi and incoming Rules Chairman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. House rules are normally adopted along party lines, but New York GOP Rep. Tom Reed said he will vote for the Democrats’ package because of provisions designed to foster more bipartisan legislating that were included upon the urging of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus that he co-chairs.

Two progressives with large followings, California Rep. Ro Khanna and New York Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, said they will oppose the rules package because of a pay-as-you-go provision, or PAYGO, that would require deficit-increasing legislation be offset with spending cuts or revenue increases. Other progressives may follow suit, but it’s not expected to be enough to sink the package.

“It is terrible economics,” Khanna said in a tweet announcing his opposition to the rules package. “The austerians were wrong about the Great Recession and Great Depression. At some point, politicians need to learn from mistakes and read economic history.”

Ocasio-Cortez in her own tweet said Democrats “shouldn’t hinder ourselves from the start.”

“It’s also a dark political maneuver designed to hamstring progress on healthcare+other leg[islation],” she said.

Although many progressives oppose PAYGO for fear that it will inhibit progress on some of their policy priorities like “Medicare for All” and debt-free college tuition, opposition to the rules package is expected to be limited.

Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairs Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Pramila Jayapal of Washington said that while they have concerns about PAYGO, they will support the rules package based on assurances from leadership that the rule can be waived. 

“We all agree that the real problem with PAYGO exists in the statute that requires it. That is why we will be introducing legislation in the 116th Congress to end PAYGO,” they said in a statement. “In the meantime, Chairman McGovern and House Leadership have committed to us that PAYGO will not be an impediment to advancing key progressive priorities in the 116th Congress.”

The PAYGO law applies to newly enacted legislation affecting mandatory spending or revenues. Emergency legislation is exempt.

Under the law, the Office of Management and Budget tracks relevant legislation for the year on PAYGO scorecards, and if the cumulative budget impact is greater than zero, the president can order a sequestration of nonexempt mandatory spending programs to offset the cost. (The vast majority of mandatory spending programs, including Social Security, Medicare, veterans programs and unemployment compensation, are exempt.)

The Senate has a longstanding rule designed to comply with the statute. 

House Democrats had a PAYGO provision in their rules when they held the majority from 2007 through 2010, but Republicans repealed it when they took over in 2011. Instead, Republicans added a provision known as cut-as-you-go, or CUTGO, which also requires deficit-increasing legislation be offset but — unlike PAYGO — does not allow revenue increases.

PAYGO can be waived by a vote of Congress, and that’s happened on many occasions for priorities of both parties, such as the Democrats’ 2009 stimulus package and Republicans’ 2017 tax overhaul. 

After Democrats have hammered Republicans, who have long claimed to be a party of fiscal hawks, for their hypocrisy in passing a tax law that would add more than $1 trillion to the deficit, it’s hard to see Democratic leadership agreeing to waive PAYGO on any substantial legislation.

“I think they’re concerned that they’re going to be able to move forward on their priorities,” incoming House Minority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland said when asked why the provision has caused consternation among progressives. “I think we should, but I also think we should pay for it.”

Shutdown stalemate

Democrats’ intraparty fissures aren’t the only controversies looming over the new Congress. They start the new session amid a lengthy partial government  shutdown of roughly a dozen agencies with no compromise solution in sight.

On Thursday, sometime after the speaker and the rules votes, House Democrats will bring up two bills to reopen the government, but neither is expected to advance beyond the House.

One is a continuing resolution to fund the Department of Homeland Security through Feb. 8 at fiscal 2018 levels, which would include $1.3 billion for fencing along the southern border but no money for a concrete wall. The other is a package that would provide full funding through the remainder of fiscal 2019 for the other six annual appropriations bills that have yet to be signed into law.

Democrats had hoped that Senate Republicans would at least pass the package of six bills, which are basically identical to the Senate versions of those measures, since those funds are unrelated to the impasse over border funding. But the president said he opposes both bills and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he won’t take up legislation the president won’t sign.

“This is really a show vote for the Democrats,” incoming House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said. “It’s not coming up in the Senate. It’s actually kind of wasting time.”

Hoyer responded sarcastically when asked about McCarthy’s comments.

“Heaven forbid that we would do any show votes. Of course, Mr. McCarthy would never have done that. On the [2010 health care law] repeal — you remember that? — 65 times,” Hoyer said, referring to the dozens of times House Republicans voted to repeal the law, knowing it was going nowhere in the Senate or in Barack Obama’s White House. “This is about government being shut down. These are bills that government could be opened tomorrow if the Senate, if Sen. McConnell would put it on the floor.”

McCarthy and Hoyer’s comments came after the top eight leaders of the new Congress went to the White House on Wednesday for a border security briefing. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer reportedly asked Trump during the meeting why he wouldn’t sign the six appropriations bills that are separate from the border funding matter. Hoyer declined to detail Trump’s response.

“He had a response,” Hoyer said. “But essentially it was not a substantive response, it was a ‘how would I look’ response.”

Trump’s concerns about how he’d look, especially when it comes to appeasing his conservative base, are likely to factor into every negotiation he enters with House Democrats this year and are among the reasons the prospects for significant bipartisan deals are slim.

Democrats, too, will be concerned about how they come off to their base, which has become more progressive in recent years. Outside progressive groups have signaled they’ll give Democratic leaders grief if they agree to give Trump any money for a border wall.

With polls showing a majority of the public also opposes the border wall, Pelosi and Schumer are holding firm. Pelosi reiterated that position in an interview with NBC’s “Today Show,” according to a clip released ahead of its Thursday airing. 

“We can go through the back-and-forth,” Pelosi said. “No. How many more times can we say no? Nothing for the wall.”

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