Trouble for Biden: Republicans win majority in the House of Representatives

The Republican Party's narrow victory in Congress after the midterm elections threatens to paralyse the White House's legislative agenda
Cámara de Representantes EEUU

REUTERS/JIM BOURG  -   House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) leads the US House of Representatives

The Republicans won a slim majority in the House of Representatives on Thursday after the midterm elections in the United States. They will occupy 218 seats to the Democrats' 211, a much smaller difference than expected before the elections, which presaged an overwhelming "red tide" for the president's party. But Biden and his party are breathing a sigh of relief. Although they narrowly lose control of the lower house, they retain their majority in the Senate against all odds. There is a party until 2024. 

A divided Republican Party managed to end four years of Democratic dominance in Congress, but expectations were much higher. A week after the polls closed, there is a mixture of disappointment and anger within the Grand Old Party (GOP). The results are far from acceptable in a vote that, historically, tends to disadvantage the president's party. The context, moreover, could not be more propitious, with runaway inflation and an energy crisis looming. 

Biden, for his part, achieved the best results for a sitting president in the last 20 years. Only George W. Bush retained his majority in Congress and won a majority in the Senate after the 2002 midterm elections, propelled by the 9/11 attacks. The Democratic leader loses his majority in the House of Representatives this time around, but retains control of the Senate, where his party is assured of 50 of the 100 seats, plus the deciding vote of Vice President Kamala Harris, the speaker of the upper chamber.

The disappointing results have prompted the Republican Party to take stock of the damage. Early indications are that the failure at the polls is partly due to the election of overly radical candidates, promoted by former President Donald Trump, and the dissemination of histrionic messages, far removed from the main concerns of voters. But the recovery of the House of Representatives after four years has served as a balm. From there, Republicans have room to manoeuvre to water down the Biden Administration's plans

For now, the GOP's timid victory displaces the incombustible Nancy Pelosi. The combative Democratic congresswoman from California will step down as speaker of the House of Representatives, a pre-eminent position, the third in the line of succession to the head of state, which she has held since 2019. It is not the first time she has been ousted from the post she previously held between 2007 and 2011 - she did so after the 2010 midterms - but it is likely that Pelosi, 82, will not return to the political front line from which she fought Trump when he occupied the Oval Office. 

She will most likely be succeeded by former congressional minority leader Kevin McCarthy. The Republican congressman - also from California - has all the cards to be the next speaker, but he is up against the most right-wing wing of the GOP. Arizona Congressman Andy Biggs, a follower of the Trumpist current and an ardent defender of the theses that preach electoral fraud, presented his candidacy on Tuesday to head the formation in the lower house. He only got 31 votes to McCarthy's 188 in the Republican ranks, but the position will not be decided until January. Any candidate must obtain the 218 votes required for a majority.

Ron DeSantis Trump
REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA  -   US President Donald Trump listens as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis discusses the response to the coronavirus during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, US, 28 April 2020

The contest for Speaker highlights the internal division eroding the Republican Party. The more moderate wing, cornered since the emergence of Trump, seems to have gained ground after the results of the last elections, which have unreservedly punished the party's extremist drift. However, for McCarthy, the slim majority in the House of Representatives is not entirely positive, because it will make him depend on the members closest to Trumpism to keep the bloc cohesive. The alternative would be to move closer to the more centrist Democratic sector, something that is currently unlikely. 

So what's next? 

"I congratulate Leader McCarthy on the Republican victory in the House majority, and I stand ready to work with Republicans to get results for working families," President Biden said in a terse statement after the final results were released. "I will work with anyone - Republican or Democrat - who is willing to work with me to get results for them," he insisted. But the climate the White House occupant will encounter will be hostile

Biden had carved out a moderate, centrist profile for himself before becoming president, capable of dialogue even with the most hardline wing of the Republican Party, which made him enemies within the Democratic ranks. In fact, in the early stages of his mandate, some important projects were passed with bipartisan support, such as the infrastructure bill. In recent months, however, he has adopted a much more belligerent rhetoric against what Trump and his acolytes stand for. During the campaign, he warned that what was at stake in these elections was American democracy itself. 

The final results point to a deadlock in the House of Representatives that will hamper the Biden administration's legislative agenda. The Senate will be the Democrats' safe passage to continue nominating candidates for the government and the judiciary. Through the upper chamber, the Democratic Party will also have the prerogative to fill another seat on the Supreme Court should the opportunity arise in the next two years, making room for liberal-style judges on a bench that today has a conservative majority.

Joe Biden, presidente de Estados Unidos
PHOTO/ARCHIVO  -   Joe Biden, President of the United States

In the House of Representatives, the Republicans intend to launch a series of investigations to shed light on some of the most compromising issues of the first half of Biden's first term, such as the abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan, the federal government's actions during the pandemic or the controversial business activities of President Biden's son Hunter Biden abroad. They also want to close the committee investigating the deadly assault on the Capitol, even though it is made up of members of the Republican Party. It will all depend on whether they make their slim majority count. 

In this scenario, Biden will have to get out his pen to sign executive orders. The president has rubber-stamped more than a hundred of them since he landed in the White House, according to the University of California's Presidency Project. He has done so to push through urgent issues, such as halting funding for the border wall with Mexico or forgiving college debt for thousands of young Americans. The frequency is likely to increase from now on.

Americas Coordinator: José Antonio Sierra.