How Connecticut's influence in Congress will change with divided government
Connecticut’s congressional delegation will remain all blue next year after Democrats in the state swept this month's elections. But with an incoming divided government — Democrats holding the Senate majority and the GOP regaining control of the House — the influence of lawmakers in the state will shift as their party loses some of its governing power.
Despite its small delegation of five House members and two senators, Connecticut has had some major sway in Congress, especially over the past two years. Its senators played critical roles in some legislative battles that yielded significant compromise bills, such as with gun safety reforms. And in the House, one member leads a powerful committee, while the rest chair various subcommittees.
But some of that will inevitably change when the new session begins on Jan. 3, altering the current balance of power that has Democrats in charge of Congress and the White House.
Next year, Democrats will have either 50 or 51 seats in the Senate, a majority that allows them to still control what legislation gets votes but will still require sizable Republican cooperation to pass most bills. Republicans, meanwhile, clinched a very narrow House majority.
That split in Congress will ultimately shake up policymaking and weaken the clout of Connecticut’s delegation, though members argue they will still have leverage.
“Rosa [DeLauro] will still be ranking [member]. We’ll still be ranking [members] in a subcommittee basis. But having the gavel versus not means a big difference in terms of legislation that we’re able to get through,” Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, said on Wednesday.
Democrats will see the more dramatic switch in the House as they enter the minority party for the first time in several years with a fresh slate of leaders. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced Thursday she is stepping aside from leadership to make way for a new generation.
Pelosi has a close relationship with Connecticut lawmakers, especially those who have been serving with her for decades. After the announcement, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, shared a long and emotional embrace with Pelosi. Larson shared a photo of him standing next to Pelosi as she held an oversized gavel during the passage of the Affordable Care Act. And Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., thanked the speaker for her support when he was first running for a U.S. House seat in 2006.
But the biggest change next year for lawmakers in the state will be transitioning from chairs of committees and subcommittees to ranking members, which are the top spots for the party in the minority.
DeLauro was elevated to the influential House Appropriations Committee in 2021 after Democrats maintained their House majority. Her committee works on passing an annual bill to fund the federal government and all of its agencies. And in that bill, members of Congress can advocate for pots of money that will directly benefit their districts.
While she will be second in command next year, DeLauro contended that she and Democrats will still be working from a position of power because government funding bills need cooperation from both parties to be approved.
“You cannot pass an appropriations bill without bipartisan, bicameral support, so we will exercise leverage over the process and what’s happening,” DeLauro said Nov. 15.
“I will still take on the priorities that we have for the state and for the nation,” DeLauro added. “They can’t pass a bill without us. That’s leverage.”
The other four members of Connecticut’s delegation are also set to become ranking members of their subcommittees, which deal with a range of issues from Social Security to nutrition.
Larson is currently chairman of the Social Security Subcommittee, which is part of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. He has been pushing back against Republican suggestions for spending cuts that would likely trickle down to Social Security and Medicare.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who is looking to become speaker next year, recently indicated that he would want spending cuts to domestic programs if Congress raises the debt ceiling. Larson said he will still work to get a vote on his bill to expand and shore up Social Security but said Democrats will more likely be playing defense in seeking to stop any reductions to those benefits.
“We’re probably more in a defensive posture now in terms of defending [against] cuts to Social Security and Medicare as opposed to proposing enhancements,” Larson said. “One would hope in a perfect world that people could get together and work bipartisanly, but that doesn’t seem to be the approach that the other side is going to take.”
The Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee — part of the Armed Services Committee — is of particular importance to Rep. Joe Courtney’s eastern Connecticut seat in the 2nd District, since it is home to submarine manufacturer General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton. Courtney has served in both the majority and minority on a committee that has a history of bipartisanship that will enable future input as a ranking member.
For the rest of the delegation, Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, currently leads both the National Security, International Development and Monetary Policy Subcommittee as well as the Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth. And Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District, who recently won a third term in a close race, is the current chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations.
The opportunities for Connecticut members, however, are looking a bit brighter in the Senate.
Democrats will hold the upper chamber and possibly even expand their majority by one seat depending on the outcome of next month’s runoff election in Georgia. The party will at least maintain its 50-50 split in the Senate with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote as needed. But if the Democratic candidate wins in Georgia, the party will have 51 seats.
Regardless of the outcome, Democrats will still need buy-in from Republicans to get bills across the finish line, since most legislation needs 60 votes to move forward and overcome filibusters in the Senate. And over in the House, Republicans will be able to block President Joe Biden and Democrats’ agenda if they remain unified.
“If we have 50 or 51 votes, we’re still going to need Republicans to pass most legislation. But we’ll be able to process the president’s nominees, and that’s really important,” Murphy said in an interview the day after the midterm elections.
Retaining the Senate majority gives Democrats another two years to process more of Biden’s judicial nominations and further reshape the federal judiciary.
The nomination of Maria Araújo Kahn, an associate justice on the Connecticut Supreme Court, is still pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee. She was tapped to sit on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Connecticut, New York and Vermont.
Kahn appeared at a September confirmation hearing without receiving much scrutiny from members and now awaits a committee vote before her nomination goes before the full Senate for a final vote. If confirmed, Kahn will be Biden’s second nominee from Connecticut to serve a lifetime appointment on the 2nd Circuit, along with Sarah Merriam.
While installing federal judges is a coveted part of the job, legislating with another narrow Senate majority will complicate the passage of many Democratic goals. But even with the tight margins and partisan gridlock, some major compromises were able to thrive in this session — along with plenty of party-line bills that Democrats pursued without Republicans.
Over the past year, Democrats got enough GOP support to pass a major infrastructure bill, legislation increasing domestic semiconductor production and a measure expanding benefits for about 10,000 Connecticut veterans exposed to burn pits and toxins while serving — a years-long priority for Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
And over the past summer, Murphy led a bipartisan coalition to pass the first major gun safety legislation in decades, though because of slim majorities, it did not include Democratic priorities like universal background checks and a restored federal assault weapons ban.
The circumstances of a divided government could put more emphasis on bipartisanship since legislation proposed by both Democrats and Republicans will struggle to overcome resistance from the other party. But some Connecticut lawmakers are skeptical about whether Republicans will want to keep playing ball and pass more compromise bills.
“I think there will be slimmer apertures through which to work compromise. I’m just really worried about a slim Republican House majority that could be pretty chaotic,” Murphy said Wednesday.
“The good news is when we were able to work big compromises in the Senate, we knew the House would give them a fair look,” he added. “That might not happen anymore.”
Others believe that the underwhelming performance by Republicans in last week’s midterms plus the small advantage they will hold in the House could put them in a position to negotiate more.
“[Republicans] need to now do something,” Blumenthal said Wednesday. “They can’t simply say, ‘Well, we control the House. We fought the Democrats.’ That’s not a way to achieve what’s responsible, not to mention what’s politically advisable.”
The looming divided government also puts more pressure to get some outstanding priorities done in the lame-duck session that runs through the end of the year.
Congress is prioritizing a bill that protects same-sex and interracial marriages in federal law, which passed in a procedural vote in the Senate on Wednesday. And a bipartisan group of Senate negotiators, which includes Murphy, is hoping to move on an elections reform bill in the weeks ahead to prevent future interference in certifying election results.
Blumenthal is also hoping to see some action over the next several weeks on his bipartisan legislation — the Kids Online Safety Act — that would, among other things, put in place stricter privacy settings on social media for minors.
But the most urgent task that lies ahead is once again funding the government before money lapses and prompts a shutdown.
As Appropriations Committee chairwoman for the remainder of the year, DeLauro will again play a significant role in securing funding beyond the Dec. 16 deadline. Democratic negotiators are trying to avoid another round of short-term funding and are seeking to pass a much larger omnibus bill to set new funding levels for government agencies for the rest of fiscal year 2023.
During the process, members of Congress are able to secure funding for their districts and constituents through community project funding, formerly known as earmarks.
For fiscal year 2023, Connecticut’s members have so far requested funding for projects related to infrastructure repairs and maintenance, affordable housing and child care services. If a larger appropriations bill passes next month, Connecticut will see federal dollars flow in for towns across the state.