The New Year is going to kick off feeling a lot like the old year in Washington, with a government shutdown and the same hyper-partisan atmosphere that dominated the first two years of the Trump administration. But Jan. 3 will mark a new day in Washington — and a new era for President Trump himself — when Democrats take over control of the U.S. House.
Their first order of business will be to pass a government funding bill to end the shutdown, but after that, the party that’s been locked out of wielding any real power in Congress for years is itching to change the debate, and itching to prove to voters that they’re the adults in the room.
So here’s a brief preview of some of the biggest battles to come in 2019. While all of them will pit Democrats against the White House and GOP controlled Senate, some of them will also pit the new, more progressive ranks of Democrats against senior members of their own party.
Democrats haven’t controlled the House since the Supreme Court handed down its sweeping Citizens United ruling in 2010 that basically gave corporations the same status as people in the eyes of campaign finance law, allowing corporate donors to give unlimited amounts to political campaigns. The ruling became foundational to Sen. Bernie Sanders donor-driven, anti-PAC presidential run, which has now been copied by many in the party — especially those eyeing the White House.
The ruling has unleashed a flood of hard-to-trace campaign donations into the system, and Democrats aim to highlight that inequity in the system right out of the gates in 2018 when they pass H.R. 1. That stands for House Resolution 1 — the first bill drafted by the majority — and is largely symbolic. Democrats plan to use it to pass a big package to expand voting rights with automatic voter registration, remove unaccountable corporate “dark money” from politics, and outlaw partisan gerrymandering.
The measure will also include a proposal to expand voter protections in states with a history of discrimination, many of which the Supreme Court took away in 2013.
It will never pass the Senate and surely won’t be signed by President Trump but it will signal to voters they’re serious about injecting more transparency and accountability in the system.
“We believe that it will have great support and that message won’t get lost on the Senate or on the president of the United States,” Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi told reporters when she unveiled an outline of the bill at the Capitol shortly after her party’s election win.
Starting with voting rights isn’t an accident.
“What we heard from the American public is that they didn’t want to just send us here to resist and to only work on oversight,” Congresswoman-elect Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) told reporters at the Capitol in November. “For us, it is a priority to make sure we are restoring hope in our democracy.”
Oversight, coming to a Trump Hotel near you
That tension between a positive legislative agenda and conducting stout oversight on Trump will be a defining feature of the 116th Congress. Since Democrats won historic gains in November, most rank and file Republicans have been borrowing from Trump’s playbook and trying to brush aside the coming Democratic-led oversight onslaught as a mere witch hunt.
“The bottom line is that if the American people look at the new Congress and all they see is an attempt to overturn the 2016 election, I think they’ll fire the Democrat majority,” Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) told VICE News at the Capitol.
Democrats laugh off those new GOP talking points.
“We’ll deal with both. So yeah, there’s a false presentation of the question,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the incoming chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told VICE News just off the House floor in December. “Over the past two years we have not had [oversight] because our Republican colleagues refused to make President Trump accountable.”
Cummings has already fired off more than 50 oversight letters ranging from the administration’s border separation policy to the Trump International Hotel that sits on government property just blocks from the White House. In the new year Cummings will have actual subpoena power.
Still, 66 Democrats have already voted to impeach Trump on the House floor (over the protests of party leaders like Pelosi), but Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) — a constitutional lawyer — argues he and other members of the oversight committee aren’t aiming at impeachment.
“We’re not judging ourselves based on a GOP standard — on those standards we would have impeached Trump a long time ago. They impeached Bill Clinton for telling one lie about sex, and we’ve seen far, far worse from this presidency,” Raskin told VICE News. “No, we’re trying to focus on the issues of the American people and we will defend the Constitution and the rule of law at the same time.”
A climate battle (among Democrats)
Some of the biggest tension that’s been on display in the Democratic Party has been over climate change. When Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez first came to Washington she cheered on protestors who took over Pelosi’s office and she’s only been amassing more support for her Green New Deal, which seeks to put the nation on a 100 percent diet of renewable energy.
“It’s about making sure that we can get as progressive and aggressive of legislation as a party on climate change as quickly as possible,” Ocasio-Cortez told VICE News in November.
But she’s getting pushback on that proposal from veteran Democrats who don’t see a viable path forward for the proposal with Republicans in charge of the Senate, like the incoming Democratic chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“Personally, I support it,” Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) told VICE News. “But like everything else we have to look and see where the votes are and how we would implement it.”
For Pallone addressing climate change remains a major priority for his powerful committee, but with the GOP in charge of the Senate in the new year, they’re planning to tackle the issue through bills that can pass and become law, including a sweeping infrastructure bill that would likely maintain broad bipartisan support.
“Certainly, there are a lot of different things that can be done as a part of an infrastructure bill,” Pallone said. “That’s a priority of the House is to move an infrastructure bill, so that’s certainly an opportunity to put some things in.”
Obamacare fights ahead
Shoring up the nation’s beleaguered health care system is also a top priority for Democrats. So this year Democrats plan to go on the offense and try to shore up the system that the Trump administration has attempted to gut through curtailing outreach efforts to get the public to sign up for it, court challenges, and ending the mandate for health insurance, as the GOP did in its tax overhaul.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re from a poor urban district or a middle class suburban district, it’s shocking how many people want to make improvements on our health care system,” Congresswoman-elect Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ) told reporters during her freshmen orientation back in November.
Democrats are now also preparing for a major fight ahead on the Affordable Care Act after a federal judge in Texas ruled the whole law is invalid. While most think that case will eventually be tossed out, they’re now gearing up for the possibility that millions of Americans could lose their health insurance in the coming years.
Gun control gets new life
In November gun-control proponents witnessed electoral gains that many couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago, and they’re promising to make sensible gun laws a major goal of the 116th Congress. Just in 2013 a bipartisan compromise on background checks failed in the Senate and it included big concessions to the GOP, like allowing family members to sell firearms to each other without a background check, but proponents say watered down gun measures are no longer acceptable to many Democrats.
“I think things have changed,” newly seated Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.), who won a special election, told VICE News. “I think this election brought more change and hopefully we’ll see that continue.”
Democrats are also sensing a mood for change on education, drug policy, regulations, foreign policy and a myriad of other issues. They’re prepared to come out aggressively in January which portends many battles ahead with their Senate counterparts, though they still have to start by wrapping up the unfinished business that the GOP has left for them: finding a way to flip the government’s lights back on.
Cover: Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won her bid for a seat in the House of Representatives in New York's 14th Congressional District, at the Kennedy School's Institute of Politics at Harvard University, Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)