Republicans poised to take over control of U.S. House of Representatives

Republicans were on the cusp of retaking control of the House Tuesday, just shy of the 218 seats the party needs to secure a majority, narrowing the path for Democrats to keep the chamber and raising the prospect of a divided government in Washington.

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy cleared 1st step to becoming House speaker

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, from California, is shown Monday in Washington when Republicans held their leadership candidate forum, where everyone running for a post presented their case. (J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press)

Republicans were on the cusp of retaking control of the House Tuesday, just shy of the 218 seats the party needs to secure a majority, narrowing the path for Democrats to keep the chamber and raising the prospect of a divided government in Washington.

Republican leader Kevin McCarthy cleared the first major step Tuesday toward becoming House speaker, winning majority support from colleagues on a secret ballot. He now faces a weeks-long slog to quell objections from his right flank before a final vote.

McCarthy has led House Republicans this far, and with them now about to take majority control, he has a chance to seize the gavel from Nancy Pelosi if Democrats are defeated.

"We're going to have the ability to change America," McCarthy said, upbeat as he entered the private meeting.

He noted backing from right-flank Republicans Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio as part of his "vast support."

The Republicans came into the election needing to flip just five seats for House control. The full scope of the party's majority may not be clear for several more days — or weeks — as votes in competitive races are still being counted. 

Democrats have already won control of the Senate by flipping a vacant Pennsylvania seat and retaining those in Nevada and Arizona. A Georgia run-off election on Dec. 6 could give President Joe Biden's party an additional seat.

Slim margin not what Republicans had predicted

A House majority will give conservatives leverage to blunt Biden's agenda and spur a flurry of investigations. But a slim numerical advantage also poses challenges and complicates the party's ability to govern, and is also far short of the sweeping victory Republicans predicted going into this year's midterm elections.

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The narrow margins have upended Republican politics and prompted finger-pointing about what went wrong. Some in the Republican Party have blamed Donald Trump for the worse-than-expected outcome. The former president, who is expected to announce a third White House bid on Tuesday, lifted candidates during this year's primaries who struggled to win during the general election.

Despite its underwhelming showing, with the majority, Republicans would take control of House committees, giving them the ability to shape legislation and launch probes of Biden, his family and his administration.

There's particular interest in investigating the overseas business dealings of the president's son Hunter Biden. Some of the most conservative lawmakers have raised the prospect of impeaching Biden, though that will be much harder for the party to accomplish with a tight majority.

Any legislation that emerges from the House could face steep odds in the Senate, where the narrow Democratic majority will often be enough to derail Republican-championed legislation.

With such a slim majority in the House, there's a potential for legislative chaos. The dynamic essentially gives an individual member enormous sway over shaping what happens in the chamber. That could lead to particularly tricky circumstances for Republican leaders as they try to win support for must-pass measures that keep the government funded or raise the debt ceiling.

Many Republicans in the incoming Congress also rejected the results of the 2020 presidential election, even though claims of widespread fraud were refuted by courts, elections officials and Trump's own attorney general.

Republican candidates pledged on the campaign trail to cut taxes and tighten border security. Republican lawmakers also could withhold aid to Ukraine as it fights a war with Russia, or use the threat of defaulting on the nation's debt as leverage to extract cuts from social spending and entitlements.

As a former senator and vice-president, Biden spent a career working across the aisle to craft legislative compromises. But in recent weeks, Biden has criticized the current Republican Party for what he characterized as anti-democratic behaviour.

Biden said in recent days the midterms show voters want Democrats and Republicans to find ways to co-operate and govern in a bipartisan manner.

Pelosi's future unclear

The flipping of the House also raises questions about the future for the current Speaker. 

Nancy Pelosi, 82, has led Democrats in the House for nearly 20 years and became the first female U.S. speaker in 2007. After four years in the post then, she was re-elected to the post again after the Democrats won the 2018 midterms.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is seen on Monday at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington. Pelosi has led her party in the House since 2003, but it is likely she will have to give up the gavel as Speaker to a Republican. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

There has been some pressure from younger Democrat House members to pass the torch to new leaders, with Pelosi and her two deputies — Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Jim Clyburn of South Carolina — all over 80 years old.

Pelosi said on Sunday her decision on whether to run again for her party's leadership will be "about family" but "also my colleagues," citing a need to move forward "in a very unified way" going into a new Congress and the 2024 presidential campaign season. 

Pelosi's decision also comes after her husband was attacked late last month in the couple's San Francisco home, suffering a skull fracture and other injuries. The intruder, a Canadian who had long overstayed his U.S. visa, demanded "Where is Nancy?" before striking Paul Pelosi with a hammer. She was in Washington at the time.