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What to expect from the 116th Congress?
With Democrats retaking control of the U.S. House of Representatives and Republicans retaining its majority in the U.S. Senate, the 2018 midterm election results offer a mixed bag for Catholic voters.
On the bright side, the pro-life movement may find it easier for conservative judges to be confirmed to the federal judiciary since Republicans picked up Democratic-held Senate seats in Indiana, North Dakota and Missouri.
“While losing the House was a big defeat for our movement, I think retaining the Senate, and growing our strength in the Senate is a pretty large victory, especially when we think about how important the judiciary is,” said Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life of America.
But on issues such as increasing legal protections for migrants and refugees, maintaining government anti-poverty programs, and ensuring access to quality and affordable health care for millions of Americans, it is unclear if there is enough of a bipartisan consensus to find solutions.
“I’m afraid we’ll probably see two years of pitched partisan battles,” said Stephen Schneck, an associate political science professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., who previously led the university’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies. Despite the ultra-partisan environment in Washington, Schneck told OSV that he wouldn’t be surprised to see some areas in which bipartisan deals and progress can occur.
“I don’t expect the polarization to go away. In some respects I expect it to get worse,” Schneck said. “But at the same time, at the margins, there is room for compromise and bipartisanship on a number of issues that matter to Catholics.”
Control of the House
The Democrats were estimated to pick up anywhere between 35 to 40 seats in the House, as some races were still being tallied in mid-November. Those gains would be the biggest Democratic takeover of the House since the 1974 midterm elections, when the party picked up 49 seats three months after President Richard Nixon resigned his office amid the Watergate scandal.
Like his disgraced predecessor, exit polls indicate that President Donald Trump was a decisive factor for urban and suburban voters, majorities of whom voted for Democrats, even in congressional districts that were gerrymandered in 2010 by GOP-controlled state legislatures.
Over the last 70 years, a sitting president’s party has lost an average of 26 House seats in the midterms. Data indicates that the Nov. 6 election results were in part a referendum on Trump, as two-thirds of exit poll respondents said their views on this presidency had a lot to do with how they voted.
The challenge now for the ascendant Democratic Party is how it will exercise its control of the House. Will the party move to oppose the president’s agenda and investigate the executive branch, or will House Democrats look for some space to work with the White House and Senate Republican leadership on legislation?
“It’s not clear which way the Democratic Party goes now,” said Geoffrey Layman, a political science professor from the University of Notre Dame. “The party is in tension right now, and a lot of that has to do with its traditional base of blue collar, white ethnic, strongly Catholic voters. Do the Democrats renew their efforts to win those voters back, at a time when the country is becoming less religious?”
For the pro-life movement, any hopes of stripping Planned Parenthood of its federal funding were dashed when the Democrats regained the House.
“Planned Parenthood might as well just set up a desk in the Speaker’s office,” said Hawkins, who was still optimistic that several decades’ worth of state and federal laws to restrict and regulate abortion will be upheld “because of what the Senate does now.”
“The pro-life movement is going to be keeping a close eye on judicial nominations,” said Hawkins, who echoed other political commentators in saying it is likely that President Trump will have the opportunity to nominate a third justice to the U.S. Supreme Court, with justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, members of the high court’s liberal wing, both in their 80s.
“Overturning Roe v. Wade is critical to our mission of abolishing abortion in our lifetime,” Hawkins said. “And we’re going to continue what we’ve been doing state by state to defund Planned Parenthood and to pass meaningful abortion restrictions there as well.”
At the state level, pro-life activists saw positive signs as key gubernatorial races in Iowa, Georgia and Ohio swung their way. In Alabama and West Virginia, voters approved ballot initiatives to limit access and public funding for abortion, setting up a potential challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision that declared abortion to be a constitutional right.
The recent bitter fight over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation galvanized some voters to vote against Democrats who opposed Kavanaugh, said Kristen Day, the president of Democrats for Life of America. Among those defeated was U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, a Catholic, whom Day said was unfairly labeled by some pro-life groups as “a pro-abortion Democrat.”
“The pro-life community for so long has been basing the pro-life agenda on electing Republicans and ignoring Democrats,” Day said. “We’re going to need a new tactic if we’re going to have success.”
Layman said Donnelly ran as a conservative Democrat, emphasizing his faith, his pro-life credentials and his willingness to work with Republicans.
On immigration — an issue the president campaigned on aggressively in the weeks leading up to the midterms — Ashley Feasley, director of migration policy and public affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told OSV that a Democratic-controlled House will provide an opportunity for oversight and to obtain answers from Executive Branch officials on a host of controversial immigration-related policies, ranging from separating migrant children from their parents to ending the Temporary Protected Status for hundreds of thousands of people.
“It’s an opportunity to get more answers from the administration about some of these decisions, how they were made, some of the thought processes and what was going on,” Feasley said, adding that Church leaders will be looking to highlight the plight of migrants amid the partisan wrangling.
“I think we should be prepared frankly to see where we can get answers, focus on oversight, focus on trying to lift up the importance of protections and the contributions of immigrants,” Feasley said. “I think that’s just as important as pushing certain pieces of legislation at this point in time.”
Brian Fraga is an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor.