WASHINGTON — While the rest of the country was electing a wave of new Democrats to the House last week, Nebraska voters stuck with their all-Republican delegation.
But the state’s trio of GOP lawmakers will find a much different chamber when the 116th Congress convenes in January under Democratic control.
“It’s going to be a lot harder to get the things done that they’ve found very easy to do over the last however many years they’ve been in office,” said Randall Adkins, political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “It’s going to be a big adjustment.”
The partisan flip means Republicans will no longer be able to dictate the topics of hearings, which pieces of legislation receive votes or the bounds of investigations.
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There are significant implications for major policy matters — forget about repealing the Affordable Care Act and don’t expect a lot of funding for a border wall with Mexico.
In fact, it’s possible that very little in the way of legislation will move, given that Republicans retain control of the Senate.
“The House and Senate are going to have very different agendas,” Adkins said.
First elected in 2004, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry is the longest-serving member of the Nebraska delegation and remembers serving in the minority.
“When you’re in the minority, obviously you’re not controlling the gavels to committees, you’re not setting the agenda,” Fortenberry said. “You’re actually in opposition to the agenda-setters in committees.”
Fortenberry said members will have to draw on bipartisan relationships with colleagues to accomplish anything.
One question is whether Republicans will compromise on issues such as health care and immigration given the changed political landscape.
Fortenberry pushed back on the idea that it’s up to Republicans to come toward Democrats, however. He said because Democrats are in charge, they need to provide answers on how to lower health care costs while protecting vulnerable people.
Medicaid expansion results by Nebraska countyClick on each county for more information on how it voted
He noted that many Democrats favor a Medicare-for-all approach to health care but said that’s unlikely to advance in a divided government.
“Does it solve the greater philosophical divide where some people believe in the government-run health care system versus others saying we have to repeal Obamacare? No, it doesn’t fully,” Fortenberry said. “But it’s got to be a decision inside the body of consensus-makers as to whether or not we’re going to chip away and get some reasonable things done.”
Rep. Don Bacon is returning for just his second term and has never experienced life in the minority.
“I’m going to have to watch and learn, frankly, on how to be effective as a minority,” Bacon said.
The Omaha area congressman said he has forged connections with fellow freshmen on the other side of the aisle and expressed hope for piecemeal, incremental approaches on health care to bring costs down. He suggested that fostering competition in the prescription drug market, for example, would attract bipartisan support.
“We shouldn’t be a contrarian party,” Bacon said. “We should look at each bill individually and see what makes sense. I don’t think we want gridlock for two years.”
All three Nebraska House members expect to support Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., as the next Republican leader over Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who is challenging McCarthy from the more conservative side of the party.
“He does speak to all wings of the conference,” Bacon said of McCarthy.
The change in numbers could mean Bacon has to give up one of his committee assignments, which include Armed Services, Homeland Security and Agriculture.
Smith and Fortenberry have enough seniority that they shouldn’t have a problem retaining their positions on A-list committees — Smith serves on Ways and Means and Fortenberry on Appropriations.
And the turnover actually means both should move up a few steps on their respective committee ladders.
Ways and Means covers both trade and taxes.
Smith suggested that Democrats might support making permanent some of the individual tax cuts, and he pointed to the importance of bilateral trade negotiations with Japan.
He also hopes to continue efforts on workforce development aimed at moving more people off government programs.
“Do we just accept the fact that roughly 40 million Americans are on food stamps and that’s the way it’s going to be? Do we just accept that 7 million men aged 24 to 54 are not working or looking for work? Is that just permanent?” Smith said. “Because if we don’t do something about it now when the job vacancies are there and we truly need these folks in the workforce, it’s lost opportunity.”
After their victories, Democrats are expected to ramp up oversight of President Donald Trump’s administration — oversight Democrats say Republicans have avoided doing for the past two years.
But Republicans suggest that they could go overboard and frustrate the American people with too much focus on that area.
“If they reach too far, I just think that’ll overshadow any tweets by the president,” Smith said.