WASHINGTON – Republicans were on the cusp of retaking control of the House late Monday, just one victory shy of the 218 seats the party needs to secure a majority, narrowing the path for Democrats to keep the chamber and raising the prospect of a divided government in Washington.
Democrats have already won control of the Senate, securing 50 seats with a runoff in Georgia next month that could give President Joe Biden’s party an additional seat. The GOP came into the election needing to gain a net of just five seats for House control.
Nearly a week after the midterm elections, Republicans were closing in on the majority, giving conservatives leverage to blunt Biden’s agenda and spur a flurry of investigations. But a slim numerical advantage will pose immediate challenges for GOP leaders and complicate the party’s ability to govern.
The full scope of the party’s majority may not be clear for several more days — or weeks — as votes in competitive races are still being counted. Still, the party was on track to achieve 218 with seats in California and other states still too early to call.
Even barely achieving 218, though, means Republicans will likely have the narrowest majority of the 21st century. It could rival 2001, when Republicans had just a nine-seat majority, 221-212 with two independents. That’s far short of the sweeping victory Republicans predicted going into this year’s midterm elections, when the party hoped to reset the agenda on Capitol Hill by capitalizing on economic challenges and Biden’s lagging popularity.
Instead, Democrats were able to largely blunt an expected big GOP election, holding on to moderate, suburban districts from Virginia to Minnesota and Kansas. The results could complicate House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy’s plans to become speaker as some conservative members have questioned whether to back him or have imposed conditions for their support.
The narrow margins have upended Republican politics and prompted finger-pointing about what went wrong. Some in the GOP have blamed Donald Trump for the worse-than-expected outcome. The former president, who is expected to announce a third White House bid on Tuesday, lifted candidates during this year’s primaries who struggled to win during the general election.
Despite its underwhelming showing, the GOP will still see its power in Washington grow. Republicans will take control of House committees, giving them the ability to shape legislation and launch probes of Biden, his family and his administration.
There’s particular interest in investigating the overseas business dealings of the president’s son Hunter Biden. Some of the most conservative lawmakers have raised the prospect of impeaching Biden, though that will be much harder for the party to accomplish with a tight majority.
Any legislation that emerges from the House could face steep odds in the Senate, where the narrow Democratic majority will often be enough to derail GOP-championed legislation.
With such a slim majority in the House, there’s a potential for legislative chaos. The dynamic essentially gives an individual member enormous sway over shaping what happens in the chamber. That could lead to particularly tricky circumstances for GOP leaders as they try to win support for must-pass measures that keep the government funded or raise the debt ceiling.
The GOP’s failure to notch more gains was especially surprising because the party went into the election benefiting from congressional maps that were redrawn by Republican legislatures. History was also on Republicans’ side: The party that holds the White House had lost congressional seats during virtually every new president’s first midterm of the modern era.
If elected to succeed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the top post, McCarthy would lead what will likely be a rowdy conference of House Republicans, most of whom are aligned with Trump’s bare-knuckle brand of politics. Many Republicans in the incoming Congress rejected the results of the 2020 presidential election, even though claims of widespread fraud were refuted by courts, elections officials and Trump’s own attorney general.
In the first national election since the Jan. 6 insurrection, one Republican who was outside the Capitol on the day of the mob attack, Derrick Van Orden, won a House seat. He won a seat long held by Democrats in Wisconsin.
Republican candidates pledged on the campaign trail to cut taxes and tighten border security. GOP lawmakers also could withhold aid to Ukraine as it fights a war with Russia or use the threat of defaulting on the nation’s debt as leverage to extract cuts from social spending and entitlements — though all such pursuits will be tougher given how small the GOP majority may end up being.
As a senator and then vice president, Biden spent a career crafting legislative compromises with Republicans. But as president, he was clear about what he viewed as the threats posed by the current Republican Party.
Biden said the midterms show voters want Democrats and Republicans to find ways to cooperate and govern in a bipartisan manner, but also noted that Republicans didn’t achieve the electoral surge they’d been betting on and vowed, “I’m not going to change anything in any fundamental way.”
The president was also blunt in assessing his party's dwindling chances, saying Monday of the House, "I think it’s going to be very close, but I don’t think we’re going to make it.”