By Justin Sink, Jennifer Epstein, and Toluse Olorunnipa
Opposition party wins seats in Kansas, Virginia, Florida
Republicans retain Senate with wins in Indiana, North Dakota
Donald Trump, who spent the past two years wielding the powers of the presidency unbound by party or political convention, is now constrained.
The Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives cripples his conservative agenda and opens the way for unfettered investigations into his scandal-plagued administration, his presidential campaign and his family’s business empire.
His personal tax returns may fall into the hands of his opponents. His re-election -- always far from certain -- may be even more dependent on the economy remaining at full steam.
Democrats picked up at least 26 GOP-held seats to gain control of the House. In the Senate, Republicans preserved their majority. Contests were still too close to call for Senate races in Florida, Montana, Arizona and Nevada.
The president now faces a fundamental choice. He can reach for bipartisan deals in areas such as infrastructure and health care or stick to a well-worn strategy of stoking passions on immigration and other divisive issues to maintain enthusiasm with his supporters.
“The president’s agenda isn’t going to change, regardless of whose party is there,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Tuesday evening as results came in. “We’re still going to be an administration that’s focused on lowering taxes, growing our economy, creating jobs, defeating ISIS, remaking the judiciary, fixing the tremendous opioid crisis that we have. I think we can work with Democrats on that.”
But Trump’s ambitions to repeal Obamacare, dramatically restrict immigration, and push forward with additional tax cuts are dashed for the next two years with Representative Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, poised to retake the Speaker’s gavel.
“The most likely outcome will be the Trump legislative agenda coming to a screeching halt,” said Doug Heye, a former spokesman for the House leadership and the Republican National Committee. “Look back at the Obama presidency. Election night 2010, the Obama legislative agenda ended.”
Trump’s cabinet, close aides and other senior administration officials face a gauntlet of subpoenas and public hearings in which hostile Democratic lawmakers will be able to rake through embarrassing ethical and political controversies. That, in turn, provides fodder for the field of Democratic challengers who will spend the next two years making the case against Trump’s re-election.
Should Trump decide to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller or pull the plug on his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, House Democrats may not be able to stop him. But with control of the legislative chamber, they should be able to surface his findings or even pick up where he leaves off with their own investigation.
Yet a Republican majority in the Senate ensures that Trump can continue to reshape the U.S. judiciary, a top priority for many conservatives.
GOP control of the Senate also gives Trump more leeway to win confirmation of his political appointments, and limits Democrats’ ability to constrain his foreign policy. He’ll retain significant leverage in the budget fights expected to erupt in coming weeks as the White House demands more money for his priorities, topped by a wall on the southern U.S. border, and cuts in spending elsewhere in the government.
Still, the president and congressional Republicans must grapple with a remarkable political comeback by Democrats just two years after the GOP swept federal elections.
Few expect Trump to reinvent himself or abandon his confrontational approach. But he has room to make deals.
“I don’t think he’s going to be chastened,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to Harry Reid, the last Democratic Senate Majority leader. “The real question mark here is whether the president is going to want to cut deals or not. What, if anything, do the president and his team want to do over the next two years?”
Trump -- a builder at heart -- has often said he’s eager to strike a deal on infrastructure development, and he may even be willing to buck Republican congressional leadership to do it. During a White House bill signing ceremony last month, the president told Democratic lawmakers he had “a feeling” they’re “going to be doing a lot of infrastructure together.”
Other potential areas of compromise include reducing prescription drug prices, an overhaul of federal prison sentencing rules and improved workforce training -- issues championed by the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Pelosi has experience working with Trump. The Democratic leader provided key votes on budget bills during his first two years, earning concessions by preserving Democratic unity as the Republican majority fractured.
Trump also agreed to an immigration deal with Democratic leaders in 2017 before reneging in the face of pushback from hard-liners in the White House and Senate.
But that experience left many Democrats skeptical that Trump is reliable, particularly if compromise requires crossing his base supporters.
“Based on what I’ve seen over the past two years, I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Manley said.
Eyes on 2020
Both sides will enter the 116th Congress with an eye locked on the 2020 presidential contest. That means Democrats are likely to spend significant time on legislation intended primarily to show their contrasts with the president on issues including immigration, climate change and taxes, Heye said.
Trump will also feel the sting of congressional investigations.
“You will see us use every arrow in our quiver to find the truth about what’s happening in public policy, what they’re doing to the environment,” Pelosi said earlier this year in an interview with NPR.
Democrats have a long list of subjects already targeted for investigation. Possible inquiries include not only the broad effort to tie the Trump campaign to Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 election, but the use of private planes by administration officials, the use of private email by White House aides, security clearance processes, and regulatory changes.
“They’ve been working quietly and not so quietly on their oversight plans,” said Nadeam Elshami, a former aide to Pelosi. “So it’s not like they’re going to wake up Wednesday morning and take a couple months to come up with a plan.”
— With assistance by Toluse Olorunnipa