Congress paralyzed by unresolved midterm races

Welcome to government in limbo.

Control of both chambers of Congress is uncalled, and House Democrats’ long-simmering leadership reckoning is temporarily on hold. Two pivotal Senate races are being tabulated with molasses-like speed. If Democrats don’t win both of them, another Georgia runoff in December could determine control of the chamber

And Congress is returning to Washington next week for high-stakes post-election legislating, with the unpredictability affecting plans for what could be a stressful session regardless of the midterm outcome.

“It’s going to be an uncertain environment, that’s for sure,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who still sees a path for Democrats to keep both chambers but is urging his party colleagues to think big in the lame duck nonetheless.

“This is the window in which we can get a lot of things done with certainty. Because we still have those two majorities,” Connolly added. “We may very well have them in January too, but that’s uncertain.”

The election results — when they are determined — could affect an end-of-year agenda that includes federal funding fights and a whole host of unfinished business. If Democrats hold the Senate, they may focus more on legislation while they’re still assured power in the House. But if Senate Democrats are worried about losing control of their chamber, they are likely to pivot to confirming as many of President Joe Biden’s nominees as possible.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has spoken to Sens. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) — whose reelection battles are still uncertain — and is telling colleagues he feels good about the party’s trajectory, according to a person who has spoken to him. After winning another term of his own this week, Schumer spent the ensuing two days dialing up senators and advisers for updates on whether he’ll have Senate control next year.

Punctuating the uncertainty, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell strolled into an empty Capitol on Thursday and observed that there was little to do but hold tight.

“I’m like all of you. I’m just watching and waiting for when they’re gonna finish counting the votes,” McConnell said, before observing one of the few concrete realities: “Schumer will still be the majority leader until the end of the year.”

Generally speaking, operatives in both parties believe Kelly is likely to win Arizona in the end. There is far less agreement on Cortez Masto’s race against GOP rival Adam Laxalt in Nevada; if it breaks her way, it could settle whether Democrats hold the majority regardless of the Dec. 6 Georgia runoff.

A senior Republican strategist said that “there are still a lot of good votes out there to be counted for Republicans, and we’re optimistic” about Laxalt. Democrats feel similarly good about Cortez Masto: One who has worked on statewide races in Nevada said that outstanding ballots in the state’s two urban counties are “breaking for Catherine enough that it should put her over the top.”

In the House, the GOP still has a narrow foothold on the majority, and Kevin McCarthy has formally launched his campaign for speaker. But with dozens of uncalled races across the West Coast, particularly California, it’s entirely possible that the House could reconvene next Monday without knowing which party will hold the gavel next year.

“Compared to how I felt last weekend? I feel great,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). “The fact that it’s two days after the election and we still don’t know who is in the majority in the House? It’s remarkable.”

All that uncertainty could affect efforts to assemble a massive spending bill by Dec. 16, the current government shutdown deadline. Leaders in both parties wanted to prioritize that legislation after the election, but its contours could be determined by whether Republicans think they’ll have a shot at unified control of Congress next year.

“Obviously, we on the House side want to get it done in this Congress, and the Republicans don’t,” said retiring Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). “It’s really a question of whether the Senate can act.”

The Senate moves much slower than the House, and therefore unfinished business weighs more heavily on its post-election schedule. Democrats are hoping to pass the spending bill, enshrine same-sex marriage protections, reform the Electoral Count Act that governs presidential election certification — as well as clear Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) energy permitting reform bill.

Given the filibuster, there’s no guarantee all that can get done, particularly as Republicans look toward a favorable Senate battleground map in 2024.

“I’m for Shelley Moore Capito’s version of the permitting bill, not Joe Manchin’s,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), his party’s top member on the energy committee. “Why do you need this just for Joe Manchin in West Virginia? … He was a rubber stamp to Joe Biden. He’s going to be held accountable in West Virginia. He’ll be on the ballot in 2024.”

Manchin quipped in response: “I consider Ranking Member Barrasso to be a friend so I’m sure that comment must have been taken out of context.”

Across the Capitol, there is a slim chance that Democrats could achieve the political-gravity-defying feat of hanging onto their majority. That would certifiably stun both parties, particularly in the lower chamber, where many Democrats had been quietly steeling themselves for the minority — despite months of rosy predictions from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team.

Pelosi herself, who was widely expected to announce her future plans after Nov. 8, instead left for a global climate summit in Egypt with the House still undecided.

With no signals from Pelosi or her top deputies, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) or House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), there is still no public jockeying over who might take their place atop the caucus.

Democrats on Thursday scheduled their leadership elections for Nov. 30, but the crop of members who hope to succeed their so-called “Big Three” can’t know which position they’re actually running for until the majority is determined. And that’s assuming Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn decide to leave the top three spots.

Even the race for the Democrats’ campaign arm — which is now wide open after sitting chair Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) lost his reelection battle — has yet to take off. The two California Democrats expected to vie for the position, Reps. Tony Cárdenas and Ami Bera, are mum as they await a House call.

And though a much smaller shake-up is expected on the Senate side, some Republicans want the party to change course. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that “rank-and-file members should vote only for leaders who commit to passing a budget that drives a fiscally conservative appropriation process.”

Caitlin Emma contributed reporting.

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