Democrats just spent two harrowing years navigating one of the tiniest majorities in House history. Now it’s the GOP’s turn — and things could get even worse.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and his team are set to take over in January with the kind of margins that vexed Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but lacking the two decades of experience she brought to the task.
And the House GOP will have to steer legislation through with as few as four votes to spare while its leaders deal with an emboldened Freedom Caucus, internal finger-pointing over a disappointing midterm cycle, and a looming brawl over a 2024 presidential primary that features Donald Trump back in the mix.
“I don't lie awake at night worrying about the bad legislation they are going to pass. Because I don't think they're going to pass it,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.).
Awaiting the outcome of just one true toss-up race, Republicans will have a majority of either four or five — giving McCarthy the sparest of margins of any other Congress at the start of its term since 1931. Not to mention that he’s already vowed to do away with Pelosi-era proxy voting, making every potential absence a new challenge.
That means governing will be a 24/7 obstacle course for House Republicans who are already facing big questions about their agenda next year, from abortion policy to Ukraine aid to impeaching President Joe Biden and some Cabinet members. As Democrats prepare their retreat into the minority, many are less-than-fondly recalling their own two years of vote-wrangling and floor delays while wishing their GOP colleagues luck.
“It was wonderful,” quipped Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), a member of Pelosi’s whip team who remembered countless after-midnight phone calls this Congress to lock down votes for many of his party’s huge bills. “That was a regular routine, as a matter of fact.”
Democrats say if there’s anything they learned over the past two years, when they, too, navigated a historically minuscule majority, it’s just how fragile those numbers can be. While Pelosi and her caucus started out with a 10-seat margin in January 2021, it was whittled down to as few as three votes during those two years.
Some Democrats said they’re unconvinced the GOP conference can exhibit the same exacting discipline that it took their party to pass everything from a policing package to Pentagon funding to even their own Democratic budget. Thanks to Pelosi, her party ultimately passed several huge bills, including President Joe Biden’s multitrillion-dollar health, tax and climate package, with less than a handful of votes to spare.
“They’re going to be fraught with fractures and friction and challenges and apostates. I wish them well in trying to manage that crowd,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.).
And Connolly, who served in the minority under previous GOP leadership struggles, cautioned that McCarthy could have even more problems managing the conference over the next two years than his most recent predecessors, both of whom struggled with Freedom Caucus rebellions: “Paul Ryan and John Boehner both had a bigger majority, and they couldn’t exercise control.”
Both of those previous speakers struggled at times to even pass bills through their chamber. Then-Speaker John Boehner, for instance, watched his own party’s 2013 farm bill fail spectacularly on the floor, and often had to rely on Democrats to pass spending bills. Years later, former Speaker Paul Ryan was forced to withdraw the GOP’s effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act after a revolt from the center. And Ryan oversaw three government shutdowns during his relatively brief four-year tenure in the speakership.
McCarthy's margin is smaller than either of those two faced. Further complicating his math problem, Republicans have pledged to do away with the cushion of pandemic-related proxy voting, which gave Pelosi critical breathing room when Democrats weren’t able to vote in person for any number of reasons.
Sometimes it was a coronavirus infection, a natural disaster in the district or a family emergency back home. Other times it was an out-of-state fundraiser or a family vacation. Regardless, Pelosi and her whip team could ensure those members would still vote — guaranteeing they had the numbers to pass their priorities despite any individual crises.
While Republicans say McCarthy will undoubtedly stick to his vow to ban proxy voting — which they've used to accuse Democrats of not showing up to work — privately some GOP lawmakers acknowledge they’re worried about their small margins, given that there's bound to be at least a few absences from each floor vote.
And there's always the possibility that the Republican majority could grow even slimmer. Democrats, for instance, had six members resign during the current Congress for jobs elsewhere, including the White House. Republicans had four members resign — including one who was convicted of campaign-related felonies. In all, six members died: five Republicans and one Democrat.
The timing of a House member's replacement can vary dramatically from one state to the next, which at times has complicated Democrats' legislative plans in the current Congress.
Special elections can occur within as little as a few months or take closer to a year. For example, the successor to Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), who died in office in April 2021, wasn't sworn in until January 2022.
McCarthy, meanwhile, appears likely to start the coming year with a majority margin roughly half the size of what Democrats started with two years ago.
It’s not clear exactly when the final two House races will be decided — one in California’s Central Valley and one in western Colorado. GOP Rep. Lauren Boebert’s opponent has already called her to concede the Colorado race.
The other uncalled seat remains a true toss-up, though GOP candidate John Duarte retains a lead of about 600 votes over his Democratic opponent, Adam Gray.
But whether it’s a four- or five-seat majority, House Rules Chair Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said Republicans would need to make plans to compromise either way — maybe even with Democrats.
And while Democrats’ reluctant members were willing to come to the bargaining table, he insisted GOP members wouldn’t take the same approach: “They just say no to everything and they’re more interested in getting more Twitter followers than they are in legislating.”
Ally Mutnick and Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.