The 116th Congress could see the start of a two-year slugfest between two partisan heavyweights — Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
More gridlock, government shutdowns, and the potential impeachment of President Donald Trump could result from the faceoff, according to senators and members in both parties.
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Yet a Pelosi-McConnell-run Congress might also yield deals benefiting both parties — and Trump, who could claim credit for any bipartisan packages as he mounts an expected reelection bid in 2020. Both Pelosi and McConnell may push for a deal on infrastructure spending, for example, an agreement that would affect every state and congressional district. Trump would also gain politically from any such package.
With Democrats increasingly favored to win the House in November and Republicans to keep their hold on the Senate, the Pelosi-McConnell dynamic is poised to become one of Washington’s most consequential political relationships — one fraught with tension but also holding the potential for legislative breakthroughs spurred by decades of congressional deal-making.
More than a dozen lawmakers and aides from both parties discussed what the relationship between Pelosi and McConnell might bring if they end up leading their chambers.
It would all unfold against the backdrop of 2020. McConnell and Pelosi will be up for reelection in 2020, and their decisions on whether to run will have a huge impact on what Congress look would like heading into possibly a second term for Trump, or with a new president in the Oval Office.
Neither leader would agree to give an interview for this article. Aides to both leaders said discussions about what could happen next year are premature, despite the fact that Pelosi released a letter on Tuesday saying Democrats “must be ready for the prospect that we will be in the majority in January.”
However, lawmakers in both chambers already are preparing for a possible Democratic takeover of the House, and what it would mean vis-a-vis a GOP-run Senate.
“I think if you just look at it objectively, that’s a very real possibility,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said of a McConnell and Pelosi-led Congress. “I think it could be quite helpful, quite frankly, in 2020. If you turn the House over to Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats’ agenda will be in full display before the American people – abolishing ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], it will be about impeachment, it will be about a lot of issues that are out of the mainstream for most Americans.”
House Democrats, for their part, most likely would make Trump and his performance as president the issue — first, last and always.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) called McConnell “a cold-blooded pragmatist” when it comes to legislation, and said the Kentucky Republican would do what he had to do to keep the government open and functioning.
“[McConnell] will make deals if he has to,” Connolly said, “and we will do what we need to do to govern effectively and efficiently.”
These two legendary septuagenarian lawmakers — McConnell is 76, and Pelosi is 78 — have run their caucuses for more than a decade each. They both have reputations as deal-makers and vote counters, and they have dealt directly with each other as Appropriations subcommittee chairs in the past.
But the two share little personally other than being nearly the same age, being vilified politically, and having deep experience as negotiators. They hardly make small talk when together and are polar opposites on ideology and policy.
“They don’t really have much of a relationship, and when they do interact, it’s very transactional,” said a person familiar with the dynamics between the two leaders. “The circumstance that they would be in the room together … it’s some deadline driven event where all parties agree a solution is necessary and failure is not option.”
Pelosi and McConnell were rarely conferring during must-pass negotiations during their respective tenures as party leaders, despite the fact they were both in the room on fiscal stimulus, default scares and government shutdown negotiations. Throughout President Barack Obama’s tenure, former Vice President Joe Biden often took the lead with Senate Republicans; the McConnell-Biden relationship was especially important in those situations, as the two old colleagues were able to cut deals that McConnell was unable to reach with former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) Since Trump took over, it’s usually been Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) dealing with McConnell.
A Democratic source said McConnell and Pelosi are both “savvy negotiators,” and said they had been involved in talks on appropriations bills.
However, one serious sticking point has emerged between Pelosi and McConnell, one that isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. In a recent interview on MSNBC, Pelosi suggested McConnell had made a “racist statement” during a 2010 interview when the Kentucky Republican said his focus was to make Obama a “one-term president.” Pelosi – who misquoted McConnell during her MSNBC appearance – called McConnell’s comment “unthinkable.”
A Washington Post fact check found Pelosi’s position on the McConnell statement inaccurate, noting “we are flummoxed how this anodyne political statement then is twisted into being an allegedly racist statement.” A source close to Pelosi said the California Democrat suggested the statement was racist, not McConnell himself, though he is intensely aware of Pelosi’s comment, according to sources close to the Kentucky Republican.
It would be a remarkable comeback for the longtime Democratic leader if she regained the speaker’s gavel. No one has pulled off this move since the iconic Sam Rayburn of Texas did it in the mid-1950s. To do so — beyond Democrats winning 218 seats — Pelosi would have to overcome doubts among some in her caucus that she should become speaker again. Pelosi is confident she could do so, as are a growing number of top Democrats on the Hill.
“Nancy Pelosi’s a very smart, very practical, strategic person. I think she can work with anybody,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a former House member now in Democratic leadership.
“I can’t tell you whether they do or they don’t [get along], but I can tell you in the 20-plus years I’ve been here I’ve watched them both mellow. So there’s no reason why they wouldn’t, or couldn’t sit down and negotiate something,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who hails from Pelosi’s hometown of San Francisco and has known both Pelosi and McConnell for decades.
Governing under unified Republican rule has been a challenge for Republicans, but the GOP has at least collaborated on tax reform, confirming judges and rolling back Obama-era regulations. It’s not entirely clear there would be any such mutual understanding under divided government; senators said even an infrastructure package would prove very difficult to pass.
“That obviously becomes more complicated with Nancy Pelosi and the center of gravity in the House is on the far left. It would be hard to get policies that are sort of on the middle of the spectrum,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a former GOP House member now in Senate leadership.
The impeachment question would also hang over any of their attempts to make government work. McConnell would likely be doing everything he could to fend it off while Pelosi navigate her own internal politics.
“It would certainly be a polarizing event. It’s hard enough as it is, but that would make it harder,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas. “They’re both professionals. But obviously [they] have dramatically different views of the world when it comes to policy. But I think they would work together if that were to happen.”
Democrats also are keenly aware of how tough the 2020 Senate map is for Republicans. The GOP would have to defend 22 seats compared with just 12 Democratic seats. Some Democrats believe that McConnell, who has already said he’s running next cycle, will seek to distance Senate Republicans from Trump if the president looks like he’ll lose his bid for a second term in the White House. But there is no sign of that happening, and it’s not clear it would matter, anyway, as Republicans can expect to get hit with Trump no matter what happens.
“There are relationships in this town that should be dysfunctional that end up being OK,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “If Mitch has a feeling that Trump is a liability going into 2020 — which is a much more dangerous year for Republicans – maybe he’s not going to be in the business of doing Trump’s bidding.”