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Politics Lookahead: A New Congressional Class


With the new year comes a new congressional class and a new power dynamic in Washington as Democrats take control in the house. The stalemate over funding for a border wall has led to a partial government shutdown and provides clues as to how this new dynamic might play out. President Trump tweeted of the Democrats, quote, "they are spending so much time on presidential harassment that they have little time left for things like stopping crime and our military." Meanwhile, Democrats are reportedly planning on bringing up funding bills to re-open government when Congress is sworn in on Thursday. Joining us to discuss what awaits is our congressional correspondent, Susan Davis.

Hi, Sue. Thanks for being here.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Don. Thanks for having me.

GONYEA: So the big news, of course, is the shutdown. It happened under total Republican control of Congress. There doesn't seem to be a solution within sight. So what happens when Congress returns with the Democrats suddenly in control of the House?

DAVIS: It certainly seems like the shutdown is going to continue into the new year. The question now is just how long into the new year. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are supposed to be negotiating with President Trump, but there's been a real breakdown in communication and no real sign that those negotiations have made any progress. What Pelosi has said is when Democrats take control on January 3, the first order of business for Democrats will be to pass a funding bill to reopen the government, and then we'll go from there.

GONYEA: OK. So is the shutdown going to get in the way of the Democrats' agenda?

DAVIS: It's going to be really hard for Democrats to move on to do anything until the shutdown puzzle is solved. I think that in some ways, the shutdown sets the tone for what we can anticipate to be a pretty confrontational Congress between a divided Congress and a White House. And this is a power dynamic shifting in Washington that is going to completely scramble the way government functions next year.

GONYEA: OK. Everybody's wondering how many investigations there will be, what kind of investigations they will be. We know they'll be into the president. We know they'll be directed toward the Trump administration more broadly. But, at the same time, we're all still waiting for special counsel Robert Mueller to conclude his work. So have Democrats talked about how Mueller and his timeline, whatever that is, might affect how they investigate Trump?

DAVIS: That is one of the great variables of 2019. The Mueller investigation is still something that is a cloud over everything else that happens in Washington. And when that investigation concludes and what it concludes could be one of the defining factors of the next year and how Democrats respond.

You made mention of investigations. I think that is one of the biggest stories to come in 2019. Incoming House oversight chairman Elijah Cummings has already sent 51 letters to the Trump administration. He has indicated he plans to investigate everything from family separations at the border to how the Trump administration has conducted security clearances to Cabinet secretaries' travel habits. And what those investigations result in could also be a major political factor going into 2019 and throughout the year.

GONYEA: OK. We don't want to neglect the Senate here. The Republicans will get more of a cushion on their majority this next session. But we've seen some cracks between some GOP senators and the president. What impact could that have - you know, tensions over foreign policy and trade and those sorts of things?

DAVIS: Yeah. The year ended where we started to see some really interesting potential fractures in the Republican Party. President Trump's decision to withdraw troops from Syria, the resignations of Defense Secretary James Mattis and Brett McGurk was something that really rattled Republicans in the Senate and decisions that I would say the majority of Republicans fundamentally didn't agree with.

I would say, as a bit of caution here, President Trump in his first two years has done plenty of things that has rattled Republican orthodoxy on trade and on foreign policy, and there has not been much interest in pushback from Capitol Hill. So I think there's a reason to be skeptical there, but it is certainly something to continue to watch.

GONYEA: Got it. Any surprises, though, that you think we could be in store for?

DAVIS: You know, one issue that I think has the potential to come back up again is gun legislation. And we have been here before, and very little progress has been made in that policy arena. Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey has made the case that the incoming House Democratic majority is a silver lining on the issue of gun legislation. He has a bipartisan bill with Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, that would expand background checks to all gun purchases, including online sales and at gun shows. This is an issue that has come up before and failed many times. But he is saying that this split power dynamic is one area where there could be bipartisan compromise in the next Congress.

GONYEA: Those words - gun legislation - that would be a surprise.

DAVIS: Absolutely.

GONYEA: All right. Susan Davis is NPR's congressional correspondent.

Thanks for being here, and happy new year.

DAVIS: Thanks, Don.

GONYEA: And later this hour, Congresswoman Kathy Castor will join us to discuss one priority of the new Congress - climate change. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.