WASHINGTON (CIRCA) – The winners of the 2018 midterms won’t have long to celebrate their victories before they have to tackle some crucial legislative priorities, but with a potentially split Congress, expectations may need to be tempered.
Democrats are projected to take the House, while the Senate will remain in Republican hands. That sets up an opportunity for the two sides to compromise — or stalemate — on major legislative issues. A vote on the national debt ceiling, for example, will have to take place less than two months after the new Congress comes to Washington.
“It has to be dealt with,” said Bill Hoagland, a 25-year veteran Senate staffer and current vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Coalition. “And that would require legislation. Otherwise, we default.”
The U.S. hasn’t failed to pay its debt in centuries, but raising the debt ceiling is a contentious topic. In 2013, some Republicans opposed raising the ceiling unless budget cuts were made. This precondition was a first, considering raising the ceiling had historically been agreed upon in a bipartisan manner without preconditions. The situation led to a suspension of the ceiling for several months until an agreement was reached that October. Should the U.S. default in the future, markets could crash and global interest rates could rise.
Immigration has been a key issue for the Trump administration and Democrats in Congress since both took office in 2016, and it could prove to be just as important for the new Congress. Hoagland sees the opportunity for a compromise.
“A divided Congress does increase the possibility of comprehensive immigration reform, but we’ve seen this game before in this place, and it is not good.”
“I know it’s hard to do comprehensive legislation, but the combination of some form of security Republicans want, some protection for those DACA children and students that are here,” said Hoagland. “Sounds to me like that sets up an opportunity for a Democratic House and a Republican Senate to find a solution which is a compromise.”
Pew Research polls show that Republicans are nearly evenly split on whether giving legal status to those who entered the U.S. illegally would be rewarding doing something wrong, while 85 percent of Democrats disagree with that viewpoint. Among politicians, it’s a much more divisive issue.
“Not only do we need that wall, we need to make sure we have an immigration system that works,” said Rep. Jim Renacci, an Ohio congressman currently running against Sen. Sherrod Brown for his seat in the Senate, during a debate.
“I believe we can protect our border without without tearing children away from their families,” replied Brown. “Is that what we stand for?”
The division exists across Congress, which is why Hoagland is skeptical.
“A divided Congress does increase the possibility of comprehensive immigration reform, but we’ve seen this game before in this place, and it is not good,” he noted.
If there is anything that Republicans and Democrats might agree on, it is defense spending. Congress passed a $716 billion defense spending bill last year, with 67.5 percent of House Democrats and 85 percent of Senate Democrats joining a majority of Republicans to pass the bill. But that remarkable majority came with a catch.
“Not only at that time [were] you raising spending for defense, you were also raising spending for non-defense,” said Hoagland. “So, it was a deal. It was you scratch my back, I will scratch yours, so to speak.”
All that spending led to an increase in the federal deficit, which is expected to rise from $668 billion in 2017 to a projected $793 billion in 2018. It’s expected to hit $1 trillion sometime in 2019.