Starting In A Stall

Anndd... (said with stuttering engine noises)... Welcome to the 116th Congress! It's going to be a busy one, starting with the showdown over the ongoing government shutdown, with a vote after noon on Thursday, as soon as everyone is sworn in, in the new Democratic House.


Democrats will be walking a hard line on funding Trump's "wall," if it's defined as a sea-to-shining-sea barrier that is mostly solid. But they're not being entirely intransigent. Most of the Democrats in the Senate today (32 of them) voted for $46 billion in border security funding in 2013, and they'd be willing to do some pro-rated version of it again, as they've already done in previous spending bills.


In the House, soon-to-be Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Appropriations Committee chair Nita Lowey have already offered a full rest-of-the-year funding package, with the exception of the Department of Homeland Security. DHS's funding would expire on Feb. 8, which would give lawmakers and President Trump a month to come up with an agreement on border security.


Trump has expressed no willingness to back off his wall, and Mike Allen reported this morning that Trump is pulling a bit of a power play today by inviting Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to a meeting at the White House -- in the situation room. The idea is to play up Trump's position that an actual wall is key to the nation's security.


Mitch McConnell will be the target of Democratic pressure after the new Nancy Pelosi-led House passes legislation Thursday to reopen the shuttered parts of the government.

But there are Republican moderates in the Senate who could shun him, like incoming Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who already sharply criticized Trump in a Washington Post op-ed. Trump has already responded, via Twitter of course, but was relatively gentle, perhaps recognizing he will need Romney in the closely divided Senate with just 53 Republicans. Consider that 22 of those Republicans are up for election in 2020. Several of them have to be concerned about being tied to a Trump shutdown, including Martha McSally (Ariz.), Cory Gardner (Colo.), David Perdue (Ga.), Joni Ernst (Iowa), Susan Collins (Maine), and Thom Tillis (N.C.). They also have to worry about primary challengers, and bucking Trump could hurt them from their right. It's a tough spot if re-election is tops on your list.


One option for McConnell to give the president his wall win would be to end the filibuster entirely. He's already done it for Supreme Court nominees (after Harry Reid did it for the lower courts), and ending the procedural blockade for legislation would be welcomed by passionate Trump backers. However, McConnell has to be aware that Democrats stand a decent chance of retaking the Senate in two years, given the numbers mentioned above. He would have almost no power if the filibuster is nuked entirely, and some of his own institutionally minded members might also object to such a move. If he wanted to do it, though, it's a relatively simple matter of challenging the result of a failed 60-vote cloture vote to end debate on a bill, and asserting to the chair that a simple majority is needed. By Senate rules, the chair would rule that 60 votes are required. But challenging that ruling would require only a majority to win. That would set a new precedent, effectively ending the filibuster.


Beyond the shutdown, Democrats in the House will be tee-ing up all sorts of oversight actions into the Trump administration that were blocked by the GOP leadership for two years. Pelosi warned just after the elections that "Democrats are going to force transparency on this president," and they are gearing up to make good on that pledge. More on that in later posts, but for now, look for early activity out of Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) on the Oversight Committee -- he's already mentioned dozens of probes that Republicans blocked -- and Rep. Jerry Nadler on the Judiciary Committee, which would take the lead in any sort of impeachment proceedings.


Impeachment will not be first on the agenda, though, even after the shutdown fight. Democratic leaders would prefer to have an iron-clad case out of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, before going there. Instead, their first initiative will be a package focused on voting rights, ethics and campaign finance, all wrapped up as "H.R. 1." Later, keep an eye out for steps on health care, infrastructure, immigration and DACA, gun violence, and environmental issues. Democratic leaders have been slow to embrace the new green activism revealed in the 2018 election and personified by new New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but the passion and determination of its young converts is real, and Pelosi et al may find themselves surprised by how strong the enthusiasm is. They will have to answer it if they don't want to fuel a greater insurgency on the left.


Yes, it's going to be a busy year.


Since the House has so many new members, here's the most recent list of offices and phone numbers from the House Clerk.


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