A showdown over government funding helped close out the year with unexpected drama in the lame-duck Congress, as Republicans and Democrats clashed over money for a wall along the southern border and hundreds of thousands of federal workers were forced off the job.
But the partial government shutdown ― the third this year ― may be nothing compared to the fiscal battles expected in 2019.
A divided government, with a new Democratic majority in the House and Republicans holding more seats in the Senate, is expected to face a deadline for raising the debt ceiling this summer. Meeting that deadline is necessary to prevent the U.S. government from defaulting on its obligations, but it will also require cooperation from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
During President Barack Obama’s tenure, Republicans held the debt limit hostage in order to gain concessions from Democrats on spending cuts. This year, however, GOP lawmakers ditched years of doomsaying about deficits and debt and agreed to a bipartisan budget deal President Donald Trump signed into law that hiked spending and suspended the debt limit for a year.
With the federal budget deficit expected to soar to more than $1 trillion next year and the 2020 presidential campaign kicking off in high gear, doing so again could prove much more difficult.
Democrats may choose to use the debt limit as leverage in order to try and roll back some of the Republican tax cuts ― which permanently slashed rates for corporations and gave most individuals only temporary tax relief. They might also demand additional spending on infrastructure, which remains one of the biggest unfulfilled promises of Trump’s 2016 campaign, as well as more funding to stabilize Affordable Care Act exchange markets.
While the Democrats haven’t been willing to cross this line in the past like the GOP has, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the likely new House speaker, floated the idea back in 2017. Now in the majority, the party is feeling even more pressure to use whatever means at its disposal to oppose Trump.
Another thing that could make cooperation with the White House more challenging next year ― on the debt limit and other matters ― is a heated Democratic presidential primary. At least eight of the possible 2020 Democratic presidential contenders are currently serving in the Senate, including Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with Democrats. Several other likely contenders are House members.
Trump also remains a wild card on the debt limit. While he has previously questioned whether the debt ceiling is necessary, and even acknowledged there are “a lot of good reasons” to get rid of it altogether, he, too, could push for his priorities in negotiations over whether to raise it next year. The move would be unprecedented for a sitting president whose party controls a chamber of Congress. But it would be in line with his current strategy of holding funding for his own government hostage until Democrats agree to fund construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
More broadly, the composition of the Senate as a whole could pose additional problems for prospects of compromise. Several moderate and centrist Democrats like Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Bill Nelson of Florida will not be returning next year. The people who will be replacing them all embraced Trump and are expected to be safe votes for his agenda.
Deal-making Republicans like Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Pat Roberts of Kansas are also eyeing the exits. The president will encounter far less pushback with his two biggest GOP critics ― Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona ― stepping down as well.
Incoming Utah GOP Sen. Mitt Romney has signaled he’ll make confronting the nation’s fiscal problems one of his top priorities next year. The former 2012 GOP presidential nominee has chided members of his party for abandoning their long-espoused goal of deficit reduction and paving the way for trillions in red ink in recent years.
“Just a few years ago, the Tea Party movement brought new energy to the issue. But now that Republicans are in charge in Washington, we appear to have become silent about deficits and debt,” Romney wrote earlier this year.
The GOP’s long-stated goal of tackling the debt could be taken up by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who called for more cuts to programs like Social Security and Medicare during the 2018 midterm elections.
A new 53-47 majority will make votes on judicial and executive nominees a bit easier for Senate Republicans starting in January. But with the 2020 election rapidly approaching, members who were previously seen as safe votes for the GOP agenda may not be so anymore. Senators who are expected to face tough re-election fights include Cory Gardner of Colorado, Susan Collins of Maine, and even conservative David Perdue of Georgia.
With her appointment to the late Sen. John McCain’s seat in Arizona, Martha McSally is also expected to vote in line with GOP priorities. But she, too, is facing an election in 2020 in a state where she just lost a Senate bid to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema during the 2018 midterms. Arizona’s rapidly changing electorate could mean a very different ― and perhaps even more mavericky ― senator in Washington.
“Arizona is clearly changing and moderating,” Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, tweeted last week. “Can McSally keep the very conservative pro-Trump base happy while appealing to young and minority voters? It won’t be easy, but if she can’t find ways, McSally could lose the second Senate seat, too.”