The Big Question for House Democrats

Will Democrats use their new perch to try to pass bipartisan legislation—or just signal for 2020? The answer is a work in progress.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks during a press conference on Friday in Washington.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks during a press conference on Friday in Washington. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

At a press conference last Friday, the likely next Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi joined a group of incoming Democratic freshmen to unveil the broad outlines of H.R. 1, House Democrats’ multipurpose reform bill that they intend to make their first major legislative effort in 2019. The grab bag of reforms would include national automatic voter registration, limits to partisan gerrymandering, a restoration of the Voting Rights Act, campaign finance reform, and a tightening of congressional ethics. The bill serves as a release of the systemic frustrations Democrats have accrued in the eight years since they last controlled the House.

But are House Democrats writing this bill with the intention of it going anywhere—specifically, through the Senate and to the president—or is it just a statement of Democratic priorities?

Since taking back the majority on Election Day, House Democrats have faced relentless questioning about how they intend to balance a legislative agenda with oversight of and investigations into the Trump administration. But investigations aside, they face equally important decisions about legislative strategy itself. The question of how House Democrats intend to legislate—to work out bipartisan compromises in a divided government, or to demonstrate the Democratic legislation they hope to get signed into law if they can retake the Senate and White House in 2020—is one that they will face throughout the 116th Congress. And right now, it’s a work in progress.

Pelosi, at least, wouldn’t give a direct one when asked if the H.R. 1 was designed to have a chance in the Senate. Instead, she emphasized the broad popularity of the underlying components. “Our best friend in this debate is the public,” she said. “And as the public observes this H.R. 1 agenda going forward, we believe that it will have great support, and that message won’t be lost on the Senate, or on the president of the United States.”

“This is bipartisan when it comes to the American people,” New Jersey Rep.-elect Tom Malinowski added. He said that he had to win plenty of Republican voters to carry his district, and none of them were turned off by the sorts of things Democrats were considering for H.R. 1. “The only question is will it be bipartisan when it comes to, say, the United States Senate? And that’s up to them”—i.e., Mitch McConnell—“to decide.”

Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes, head of the task force that is putting together the legislation, concurred. “H.R. 1 is not being built for Mitch McConnell,” Sarbanes said. “It’s being built for the American people.”

Unfortunately, the American people don’t control the Senate floor calendar. Mitch McConnell does. And the subtext of these indirect answers about “the people” is a pretty direct answer: No, obviously Senate Republicans aren’t going to do anything with this, and Democrats will hold that against them in the 2020 campaign. McConnell, in a Wall Street Journal interview Monday night, confirmed that he wants nothing to do with the bill, putting it in the bucket of measures House Democrats would try to pass “knowing full well that I’m not going to take them up.” H.R. 1, he said, is “not going to go anywhere in the Senate.”

Pelosi had been anticipating this. “Democrats ran and won a resounding victory in part on our commitment to restore integrity in Washington,” Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesman, told me. “We are more than happy to make the issue too hot to handle for those who try to obstruct the clear will of the people.”

Even if Pelosi wasn’t surprised by this, a lot of Democratic freshmen seem to be under the impression that, or are at least acting as if, not every issue will instantly freeze into this sort of intra-gridlock. In a letter Monday, 46 incoming Democrats wrote their leadership insisting, among other things, that they prioritize a bipartisan legislative agenda that should include “the cost of healthcare and prescription drugs, our crumbling infrastructure, immigration, gun safety, the environment, and criminal justice reform.” They added that they had a “mandate” to work across the aisle to pass such legislation. (It’s unclear which House Republicans they view as particularly gettable in the new Congress. These same new Democrats, after all, just beat all of the gettable ones.)

McConnell, in his interview, guessed that Pelosi would “prefer” to “see what she can do on a bipartisan basis” while also offering partisan legislation to the party base here and there. And there may well be some opportunity on, say, infrastructure, now that the president is eager to spend money on it. But most of what House Democrats want to do, even if they believe it should have bipartisan appeal, won’t garner the Republican support necessary to make it to the president’s desk. Policy differences aside, Republicans have an electoral incentive to portray House Democrats as unserious, wild-eyed lunatics incapable of governance. Expect, then, House Democrats to pass various items like H.R. 1 that, as Malinowski put it, are “bipartisan when it comes to the American people”: some form of the DREAM Act, expanded gun background checks, a shoring up of the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges. Then they’ll run in 2020 against Republican obstruction of legislation that the country broadly supports.

It ultimately won’t matter much whether Democrats’ legislative strategy is to try to pass bipartisan compromise legislation, or just to showcase Democratic priorities ahead of 2020. Gridlock will preclude most of the former, and the latter will be all that’s left.