The 118th Congress begins on Tuesday with Republicans taking control of the House and Democrats maintaining their majority in the Senate. The first day will also be marked by the election of a new Speaker, a normally routine affair that has been a source of political drama over the last month as Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California struggled to lock up support from the Republican caucus.
Every Congress meets for two years. Ahead of the 2024 presidential election, House Republicans are expected to use their small majority to conduct a wide range of investigations, including into the Department of Homeland Security and President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. In the Senate, Democrats will continue to appoint judges nominated by President Joe Biden. Beyond that, meaningful legislative changes may be hard to come by in a divided Congress
Here’s what to expect as a new Congress reconvenes on Tuesday.
In the Senate, where Democrats maintained their majority, this year’s main players will look similar to last year’s, with Democrat Chuck Schumer as majority leader and Republican Mitch McConnell leading the minority. The House is a different story.
Kevin McCarthy, who was the House Minority Leader during the previous Congress, faced some opposition from his own party in his bid to be the Speaker of the House. With voting set to begin on Tuesday, it’s still unclear whether he’ll have enough votes to prevail. In recent weeks, five House Republicans—Matt Gaetz of Florida, Ralph Norman of South Carolina, Matt Rosendale of Montana, Bob Good of Virginia, and Andy Biggs of Arizona—have insisted they would not vote for McCarthy on Jan. 3. Biggs challenged McCarthy in November for the Speakership.
Ahead of the election in November, McCarthy, 57, released his “Commitment to America,” a Republican legislative agenda that includes goals of increasing border security, reducing inflation, and advancing a so-called “parent’s bill of rights.”
Across the aisle, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York is set to become minority leader a decade after joining Congress. He is poised to be the first Black leader of either party and to serve on one of the most diverse party leadership teams in congressional history. At 52, he’s been lauded for bringing fresh blood to Democratic leadership after 82-year-old Nancy Pelosi announced in November she would step down as Speaker. Jeffries has been poised to take up the mantle for years, previously serving as House Democratic Caucus chair.
Republicans have worked to undermine Jeffries, launching misleading attacks calling him an “election denier.” Jeffries could also run into roadblocks in dealing with the left flank of his own party. He has backed House incumbents facing progressive challengers and has at times been met with skepticism from the most left-leaning representatives. Still, House Democrats remain more united than Republicans. Jeffries has emphasized building bridges across ideological lines and has found support among Democrats of all stripes.
What happens on Day One
The Constitution requires a new Congress to convene at noon on Jan. 3 as long as the previous Congress did not make a law mandating otherwise.
In the House, the first key order of business is electing and swearing in a Speaker. Generally, leaders from each major party nominate one candidate apiece, although other members are allowed to offer additional candidates. Then, the members-elect complete a voice vote to choose their Speaker. The winner must receive a majority of the votes cast.
After the Speaker takes the oath of office, the new Speaker administers the oath to the other members all at once on the House floor. Once that’s done, the next major tasks are electing administrative officers and approving a new rules package through a House resolution. Rules from the previous Congress don’t carry over, but the majority party tends to offer an amended version of the old package. Many members may receive committee assignments on the first day before the House launches into routine business.
The Senate side works similarly, but offers a little more continuity. The fact that Senators are elected to staggered terms means that they don’t have to adopt an entirely new rules package. The primary item on the agenda on Tuesday will be for new Senators to take the oath of office in the Senate chamber. After that, Senators may elect a Senate president pro tempore to preside over the chamber in the absence of the vice president, assign committee memberships, and introduce other legislation.
Though Democrats are maintaining control of the Senate, a House Republican majority means efforts that Democrats were rushing to pass late last year are likely dead—including a measure to codify Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that made abortion legal in the U.S., which the Supreme Court overturned in June.
During the midterms, Republicans ran campaigns that criticized Biden’s handling of the economy, and have signaled that they plan to push to reduce federal spending, including cutting the amount of resources the U.S. provides to Ukraine.
What Republicans could do with control of the House
With Republicans in control of the House, oversight and investigations into executive decisions made by the Biden Administration will pick up steam.
Republicans have long called for investigations into Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for his handling of the U.S.-Mexico border, and for investigations into Hunter Biden. Many have also said they want to investigate the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Rep. James Comer, a Kentucky Republican who will now head the House Oversight Committee, wrote last month in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal that the committee would investigate Biden’s border policies, pandemic relief fraud, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the origins of COVID-19, and business dealings by the Biden family. “In the new Congress, Republicans will return the committee to its proper role: rooting out waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement in the federal government,” Comer said. “Committee members will conduct credible oversight, identify problems, and propose reforms.”
Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, will become the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, which has the power to hold impeachment proceedings. Jordan told The Washington Times that Mayorkas “deserves” investigations that could lead to impeachment. He has also said the committee will investigate the Department of Education, and political bias in the Department of Justice and FBI.
The January 6th Committee, which last month recommended four criminal charges against former President Donald Trump and released its final report, will dissolve with the new Congress, and Republicans in control of the House are not likely to bring the committee back. McCarthy has called the committee “the most political and least legitimate committee in American history.”
What Democrats could do with control of the Senate
On the Senate side, every Senator up for reelection won, as did John Fetterman, who secured an open seat in Pennsylvania previously held by a Republican. That would have given Democrats a narrow 51-seat majority in the 100-seat chamber. But then Sen. Kyrsten Sinema announced last month that she was becoming an independent who did not plan to caucus with Democrats, although she promised that the decision would not change her work in Congress. Democrats will maintain control because Vice President Kamala Harris can break tie votes in the Senate.
Senate Democrats are expected to continue to confirm the judges that Biden appoints. But many of the party’s more ambitious priorities will remain out of reach in the new Congress absent bipartisan support. Even getting most measures through the Senate would require bypassing the filibuster, and Sen. Joe Manchin’s opposition to doing so under any circumstance means Democrats are one vote short.