If the polls are correct, Republicans are on course to take back control of at least one chamber of Congress after Tuesday’s midterm elections, in a development that would bring “divided government” back to Washington.
Non-partisan projections point to the Republicans seizing the reins of the House of Representatives, while control of the Senate, the upper chamber of Congress, is likely to hang on a few key races in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Georgia and Nevada.
While president Joe Biden would have the power to veto Republican legislative proposals, the potential changing of the guard nevertheless raises questions about what a Republican-led House will mean for the next two years of Biden’s presidency — and beyond.
Kevin McCarthy, who is widely expected to become the next Speaker of the House if Republicans get the edge in the lower chamber, hinted in recent weeks about what might be in store.
Debt ceiling used as leverage
McCarthy has suggested he would use the government borrowing limit — commonly known as the “debt ceiling” — as leverage in pushing through Republicans’ policy priorities, including major spending cuts.
“You can’t just continue down the path to keep spending and adding to the debt . . . there comes a point in time where, OK, we’ll provide you more money, but you got to change your current behaviour,” McCarthy told Punchbowl News last month. “We’re not just going to keep lifting your credit card limit, right? And we should seriously sit together and [figure out] where can we eliminate some waste?”
The debt ceiling sets a limit on how much the Treasury can borrow to pay for government spending. Once the ceiling is reached, lawmakers must lift the limit or risk US government default — giving Republicans a significant card to play to advance their fiscal agenda, which is likely to include reforms to entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare.
Cuts to Ukraine aid
McCarthy made headlines around the world when, in the same interview with Punchbowl News, he suggested he would endeavour to cut US aid to Ukraine. In a rare example of bipartisanship, Democrats and Republicans have approved tens of billions of dollars’ worth of support to the country since the Russian invasion earlier this year. But McCarthy hinted Republicans might be less likely to continue the pace of spending in the future.
“I think people are going to be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank cheque to Ukraine. They just won’t do it . . . It’s not a free blank cheque,” McCarthy said. “And then there’s the things [the Biden administration] is not doing domestically. Not doing the border and people begin to weigh that. Ukraine is important, but at the same time it can’t be the only thing they do and it can’t be a blank cheque.”
David Arakhamia, head of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s party in parliament, told the Financial Times he was “shocked” to hear McCarthy’s comments, adding: “Just a few weeks ago, our delegation visited the US and had a meeting with Mr McCarthy. We were assured that bipartisan support of Ukraine in its war with Russia will remain a top priority even if they win in the elections.”
Republicans eye their own investigations
Under Democratic leadership, House committees have launched a spate of investigations, most notably the high-profile January 6 committee that is probing Donald Trump’s involvement in the 2021 attack on the Capitol. If Republicans take control of the House, that committee is likely to be disbanded, while other committees will also shift hands to the Republicans.
While intraparty elections would be held on Capitol Hill to install chairs of those committees, there are indications Republican committee chairs would open several of their own investigations into everything from the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic to the Department of Justice’s approval of a federal raid over the summer at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, to the business dealings of the president’s son, Hunter Biden.
Republicans have questioned whether the younger Biden — who has openly struggled with drug addiction and is facing a federal investigation into his tax affairs and a gun purchase — compromised national security through his business dealings in Ukraine and China.
At the same time, several hardline Republican lawmakers — notably Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene — have called for the impeachment of Biden, attorney-general Merrick Garland and homeland security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, among others. McCarthy has not endorsed such calls, saying the country “doesn’t like impeachment used for political purposes”.
When asked by CNN this week whether impeachment was “on the table”, McCarthy replied: “You know what’s on the table? Accountability,” before rattling off a list of possible investigations into issues such as the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“We will never use impeachment for political purposes,” he added, lashing out at Democrats for leading two efforts to impeach and remove Trump from office.
“That doesn’t mean if something rises to the occasion, it would not be used,” he added.