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How would the president and Congress govern with a divided government?


It's Election Day, and it's a close one in a lot of places. So it will be a while before we know exactly how all the races turn out. But we do know that historically, the party out of power gains seats in midterm elections. And given how narrow the majorities are in the House and Senate, Republicans could regain control of at least one chamber.

So what might that mean for President Biden and his agenda? Let's talk about that with Asma Khalid and Deirdre Walsh, who cover the White House and Congress, respectively. Welcome to you both.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good to be here.


NADWORNY: Deirdre, let's start with you. What would a GOP-led House agenda look like?

WALSH: Well, the president's agenda would essentially be shut down. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has already said the first item on a House GOP agenda, if he's elected speaker, would be rolling back a signature Biden bill, the Inflation Reduction Act. McCarthy points to the cuts that he wants in that bill that would hire more IRS agents. Negotiations over spending bills would be really difficult. Republicans want to slash federal spending and force cuts in some programs in return for raising the nation's borrowing limit. Any kind of standoff over that could threaten a default unless Congress decides to raise the debt limit by the end of this year before any change in control.

There are also questions about continued aid to Ukraine. Many GOP candidates on the ballot oppose it, and McCarthy has signaled a major focus of a Republican House would be on investigations of the Biden administration on things like the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the border and origins of COVID.

KHALID: You know, if I can chime in here - I mean, all of these investigations will certainly put the White House on defense. As Deirdre mentioned, President Biden's legislative agenda will essentially come to a screeching halt, meaning you won't see new bills beyond, say, passing a budget to fund the government. But look, I will say, you know, the White House has known that this is a possibility. Biden himself joked - I was out with him the other day on the campaign trail - that Republicans, he says, want to impeach him.

But, you know, one thing I want to mention - Deirdre said that the man who's expected to take over as leader in the House wants to repeal aspects of the Inflation Reduction Act, and Republicans will try that. But the president himself said - President Biden - that ultimately still, he has the power of the veto, and he intends to use it.

NADWORNY: So how is Biden going to try and adjust his agenda to this potential new reality?

KHALID: He's going to likely focus more on executive actions and foreign policy, and that is something that predecessors in similar positions have done. I will say that, you know, if Republicans take control of the House, it does establish for President Biden, I think, ahead of the 2024 election, a clearer contrast for him. You know, he hasn't had that these past couple of months given the fact that Democrats control Congress. He has not had a clear foil. And this is something I heard from Faiz Shakir. He's a Democratic advisor on the left. He said that potential House GOP majority actually makes it easier for the president to talk about what Democrats want to do.

FAIZ SHAKIR: His conversation with the American public gets a lot easier, you know, in some ways. Politically, you could say, this is what I want to do. This is the agenda I want to pass, and I got Republicans here in the House standing in my way.

NADWORNY: Deirdre, is there some risk for Republicans here if there's no legislative agenda and they just focus on investigations?

WALSH: There definitely is. As Asma noted, you know, the president still has a veto pen. And a lot of the things that House Republicans could pass through a Republican House could not potentially get through a Republican Senate because it's unlikely, even if the Republicans gain the Senate and the House, they wouldn't have 60 votes in the Senate. So, you know, a lot of - there's just a lot of turnover of members of Congress. A lot of the members of Congress who are serving now weren't around the last time there was divided government with GOP leaders on the Hill and a Democratic president. So some of these new members who've been there for a couple of years and candidates are talking about bold changes that they want to pass through the House, like cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Those things have bipartisan support. They won't go anywhere in the Senate. And that could backfire on Republicans.

KHALID: And a couple of people that I spoke with said that House Republicans could very easily overstep here. You know, it's one thing to do a House investigation on the Afghanistan withdrawal. It is an entirely other thing to do an investigation into Hunter Biden. And one of the dangers, I would say, that I've heard from analysts is that Republicans could potentially overread these election results as some sort of mandate.

I spoke with Brendan Buck. He's a former spokesman for Republican House Speakers Paul Ryan and John Boehner. And he told me if Republicans have learned a lesson from the 2010 midterms, it's to interpret these results very carefully.

BRENDAN BUCK: If Republicans find themselves thinking that it was all about them, they're at risk of seeing some backlash themselves, and that's what we saw in 2010 into 2012.

KHALID: And Elissa, what he means by this is that, you know, it's - it's something, I should say, I also heard from other analysts - is that what happens in these midterm elections tonight is not necessarily an indication of what could happen in two years in a general election. They point to the fact that in 2010, Democrats lost 63 seats in the House. Two years later, Barack Obama won reelection.

NADWORNY: Yeah. So could mean a lot of things. We'll keep watch all night. That's NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid and congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh. Thanks to you both.

KHALID: My pleasure.

WALSH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.