Congress is too close to call. Here’s what’s at stake.
Democrats were spared defeat in Tuesday’s midterm elections, but even a narrow victory in either chamber of Congress would complicate their energy and climate agendas.
Republicans are still favored to win the House of Representatives, but the closer-than-expected election has given a boost to Democrats and climate policy advocates who feared a landslide. The Senate remained a tossup Wednesday morning, and the outcome may not be clear until after a December runoff in Georgia.
“There’s certainly no wave or tsunami,” said Bob Perciasepe, who served as EPA assistant administrator during the Obama administration.
The final balance of Tuesday’s congressional election could affect everything from House lawmakers’ aggressiveness in pursuing scrutiny of the Biden administration to whether presidential nominations will stall in the Senate. It could also signal voters’ appetites for more aggressive climate and energy policies and provide early clues to the 2024 presidential race.
Even a narrow GOP takeover of the House of Representatives would make life significantly more difficult for the Biden administration.
But there’s a big difference between Republicans winning a House victory and securing majorities in both houses of Congress.
Republicans remain hopeful that close races will fall in their favor, which could greatly enhance their ability to oversee the Biden administration’s energy and climate policies. A Senate victory would give the GOP significantly more power over President Joe Biden’s appointments.
But Democrats and environmentalists, bracing for the big losses that often side with the party in power during a midterm election, were pleased with the early results.
“It’s a deeply encouraging result that really defies the political severity and historical circumstances,” said Sam Ricketts, co-founder of Evergreen Action and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
A Republican mandate?
Republicans in Congress have promised aggressive oversight of the Biden administration, including its climate and energy policies.
Home Secretary Deb Haaland, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and EPA Administrator Michael Regan are among those who face frequent invitations to testify before committees if Republicans win the gavel in either chamber.
Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), who is set to chair the House Oversight and Reform Committee, has promised aggressive probes, including into the government’s energy policies, such as the president’s attempts to halt approvals for new oil and natural gas from drilling Federal State.
“I believe at the end of the day steps are now being taken to try and hold this government accountable,” Comer told Newsmax on Wednesday morning.
“I think the Conservative voters who came out in droves – who voted for change, who voted to turn the house around – I think they’re going to be very happy with how the Oversight Committee is going to start its work in January.”
But a slim majority in the House of Representatives could see Republicans softening their oversight plans. It could also make it more complicated for GOP leadership to lead a caucus where lawmakers have differing opinions on policy and oversight.
“There’s a significant number of Republicans who aren’t there to cooperate or legislate,” said former Virginia Democratic Rep. Jim Moran.
Normally, getting a majority in Congress would make lawmakers “a little bit careful about how they move,” Perciasepe said. But “that’s not the way the modern Republican Party operates,” he added. He expects that a GOP-controlled House would “run as hard as possible … to engage in interference” against the Biden administration.
Former Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican who took the gavel of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee when Congress moved to GOP control in 2011, said he hoped the House GOP didn’t vote the majority for “revenge.” ‘ but use it for ‘trying’ will solve economic problems.”
He doesn’t see much opportunity for meaningful legislation in a divided Congress, and he expects the Biden administration to focus on the executive branch if the GOP wins the House or Senate.
That would be welcome news for some environmentalists.
“We’ve always wanted to not just focus on “effectively implementing” the recently passed climate law, but “go bigger and bolder in executive branch action,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters. “That’s going to be a big priority regardless of what the final votes are.”
The energy sector also expected the GOP to perform better.
But the industry could still see some gains over the next two years, said Scott Segal, partner at law and lobbying firm Bracewell LLP.
“Simply because we will probably have a divided government, with one [chamber] Being at least Republican controlled doesn’t mean we should put all consideration and energy issues back on the back burner,” Segal said in a webinar for customers and others on Wednesday.
He cited allowing reforms as a possible area for compromise.
High stakes in the Senate
Maintaining control of the Senate would be a major win for Democrats and the Biden administration.
The Senate majority could be lost until a December runoff between incumbent Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock and Republican former NFL player Herschel Walker (E&E daily9 Nov).
The consequences will be enormous.
Instead of just one set of House committee chairs holding oversight hearings and bombarding agencies with requests for documents, the Biden administration would have another set of committees conducting investigations.
A Republican Senate majority could significantly slow the confirmation process for Biden’s nominees — both for the judiciary and for political agency appointments.
Senate GOP scrutiny could also change who Biden nominates for jobs based on which candidates are more likely to receive Republican approval.
And when cabinet secretaries or other senior officials leave their posts, it could be a while before they are replaced, vacating high-profile energy and environmental posts critical to Biden’s agenda.
The climate took a back seat
According to political insiders, Biden’s climate policies were not a key issue in Tuesday’s election, although the massive climate bill enacted by Democrats may have influenced some voters’ decisions.
“This wasn’t a big climate election,” Ricketts said.
But he and other climate policy advocates pointed to the youth turnout as a sign that Democrats’ climate policies are popular in a constituency more likely to vote on climate policies than older generations.
Ricketts also sees it as notable that Republicans have not aggressively attacked Democrats on climate policy this campaign cycle. “It’s a popular agenda,” he said.
Gasoline prices were the focus of GOP attacks on Democrats ahead of the election, but those attacks weren’t enough to give Republicans the big victories they had hoped for.
“I think they were a factor,” Moran said of gas prices. But he added: “I thought there would be more Democratic casualties than there actually were because of gas and food prices.”
Looking to 2024
Wednesday marks the unofficial start of the 2024 presidential campaign season.
Of course, it’s still early days and the presidency’s field is far from clear. But Democrats say their better-than-expected performance on Tuesday bodes well for their chances of keeping the White House beyond Biden’s first term.
“I think that puts the Democrats in a good position to start thinking about what the future holds for them,” Ricketts said. The 2024 race “was ages ago, but you’d much rather be the Democratic Party than the Republican Party.”
The results are “a wake-up call for Republicans,” Whitfield said. He believes Republicans would have made greater gains without the influence of former President Donald Trump.
“It’s just an added incentive that Donald Trump is leaving politics,” Whitfield said. “I think his personality is such that a lot of people just can’t stand him.”
Reporter Jeremy Dillon contributed.