Five ways January transformed the political landscape

A new year and a new power structure at the Capitol with a House GOP majority eager to exert its influence is quickly transforming the political landscape.

The year — barely a month old — has already been marked by at least one political happening not seen in more than a century: an electrifying House election that took 15 votes to make Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) the new Speaker. 

The early signs of a 2024 presidential battle, a classified documents controversy that has pulled in President Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence, and the swirling controversy around first-term Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) are among the other stories that have kept Democrats and Republicans alike on edge. 

Here’s a look at what’s happened so far, and how it will color the next year and beyond in politics. 

A divided GOP elects Speaker McCarthy 

Speaker-elect Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)

Everyone in politics knew the Speakership election would be a showstopper, given the thin House GOP majority that meant McCarthy could only lose four votes to win his election. 

But few projected there would be a week of votes and drama on the House floor, culminating in a failed vote late Friday night that saw McCarthy rise from his seat to confront Rep. Matt Gaetz (Fla.), the pro-Trump Republican refusing to switch his vote to “yes.” 

Initially it seemed McCarthy might be sunk, but then Gaetz and five other anti-McCarthy members were convinced to vote “present” in a 15th and final vote, securing the Speakership for McCarthy.  

The show on the House floor was more than the week’s best reality show on television.  

It was a precursor to understanding how fragile any GOP majority will be going forward — at least if Democrats are unified in opposition.  

Politics and policy in Washington, D.C., will be transformed by a House majority that wants to cut spending, win concessions for any debt ceiling hike and change the way the House works — including through a time-consuming open amendment process.  

It will also be transformed by the difficulties the House GOP is likely to experience in unifying on difficult issues. Long nights and uncertainty on the House floor are back.  

Committee assignment fights underscore slim GOP advantage 

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.)

The next tight vote for the House GOP may be on removing Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from her seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  

McCarthy had vowed to remove Omar from the panel for her remarks criticizing the Israeli government and U.S. support for Israel — which her staunchest critics say had edged into antisemitism.  

There’s also some political payback at play. The Democratic House majority that just lost power had previously removed Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) from their panel seats.  

Those two Republicans are now back on committees, while Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) were blocked by McCarthy from serving on the House Intelligence Committee. 

While McCarthy could block the two Democrats from Intelligence on his own power, removing Omar will require a House vote, and it’s unclear McCarthy can win a majority. McCarthy has already lost at least two GOP votes. Several others may be wavering. 

The Omar vote, assuming it happens, will be another sign of how few GOP lawmakers the GOP can afford to lose when they bring controversial measures to the floor.  

It will also show off a transformed House where Greene and Gosar are back in power on committees after their own past controversies — and where plenty of bitterness on both sides remains.  

Classified documents damage presidential contenders 

Photo illustration of classified document and letter text with Donald Trump, Joe Biden and Mike Pence in a center rectangle with a black-and-white White House behind them.

Does everyone with a security clearance in Washington have some classified materials in their homes and garages? 

You could be excused from wondering, given the separate controversies that have now ensnared Biden, Pence and former President Trump. 

The story began with the FBI search of Trump’s Florida Mar-a-Lago home in August. An inventory released by the FBI said its investigators had found 18 documents marked as top secret and dozens more labeled as secret.  

Democrats pounced, and the classified documents controversy swirling around the former president was a major narrative throughout the fall. Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to look into the matter after the 2022 midterms. 

It was then a big surprise when the public learned on Jan. 9 that classified documents had been found at Biden’s former private office in Washington, D.C., from his time as vice president. More documents were subsequently found at Biden’s Wilmington, Del., home and residence.  

Now it was the turn of Republicans to go on the attack, as the GOP questioned why the White House had only spoken about the found documents months after the midterm election, even as it had attacked Trump for classified document violations. The news media also came under criticism from Republicans who saw a double standard in how the two cases were covered. 

While the White House argued there were important distinctions between the Trump and Biden controversies, the findings raised questions about the damage done to Biden.  

And then more news. Pence also had classified documents at his home, and he acknowledged that “mistakes were made” just weeks after he’d criticized the White House for the discovery of Biden’s documents. 

What does it all mean for the hopes of Biden, Pence and Trump in 2024? It’s hard to say for sure.  

The conventional wisdom is that the Pence discovery somewhat negates Biden’s document issue, which also triggered the appointment of a special counsel. If the issue is on the minds of voters in 2024, it could present an opening for another candidate — like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who would likely present himself as a Washington outsider if he runs for the Republican presidential nomination. 

In the meantime, other former presidents and vice presidents are going through those documents at home. 

Happy Dems wake up with 2024 Senate anxieties 

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)

Democrats entered January about as happy as a party can be, given it just lost the House majority.  

The party held the Senate, after all, and it kept its losses in the lower chamber to a minimum. It also gained a couple of Democratic governors.

But if Democrats were getting drunk while celebrating a strong November, GOP infighting and Trump’s post-election problems, those in the Senate were stone sober over a Senate map that has the party defending seats in tough states around the country in 2024. 

Senate Democrats up for reelection include Sens. Joe Manchin in West Virginia and Jon Tester in Montana — two states won handily by Trump in 2020. They are proven winners, but the races will be competitive if both men decide to run for reelection. Neither has announced so far. 

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) will be up for reelection in Ohio, another tough state for Democrats. Brown is seen as a Democratic legend for his victories in a state that has been seemingly moving toward the GOP over the last decade. He’ll be tough for the GOP to defeat but will be a target given the state’s trajectory. 

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) announced her retirement in January, creating an open seat race in Michigan that will draw GOP challengers.

Competitive races are also likely in Pennsylvania, Nevada and Arizona, where Sen. Kyrsten Sinema is now an Independent.  

George Santos is the story that keeps on giving 

George Santos

It’s probably too much to say that Santos is transforming Washington. He’s just a freshman lawmaker, after all.  

Santos is a political gift to Democrats, who can point to the Republican’s committee assignments any time they want to argue the GOP is hypocritical for seeing to remove Democrats from working panels.  

He’s a distraction for House Republicans, many of whom have not been shy to offer barbs about their new colleague. One called him an imposter; another a “bad guy.” Several called for his resignation.  

It’s unclear how long a career in Washington that Santos will enjoy. But as long as he’s around, he’ll likely to draw questions for House GOP leaders.

Tags Biden George Santos George Santos House Speaker vote Ilhan Omar Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Mike Pence

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