Impatience, exuberance will define new Congress

Perhaps it is fitting that Rep. Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump telling aides to look at potential spending cuts if he wins reelection: report Budget talks between White House, Pelosi spill into weekend Trump says he won't watch Mueller testimony MORE (D-Calif.) had to work so hard to lock down enough votes within her own caucus to guarantee her return engagement as speaker of the House. Usually a mere formality, this time the speaker vote was in doubt, not because of Republican opposition, but because of a small insurgency within her own caucus.

A group of 15 to 20 Democratic members, primarily representing the House’s most moderate districts, had indicated they would vote for someone other than Pelosi. It could have been enough to deny Pelosi’s bid, but predictably, she outmaneuvered her opposition and eventually came to an agreement guaranteeing her control of the speaker’s gavel.

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Pelosi may be the most formidable negotiator and skilled vote-counter in modern congressional history. She has earned a well-deserved reputation for winning difficult fights, and those who underestimate her do so at their peril. In the weeks leading up to the convening of the 116th Congress, she has put all of those skills on display. But it will be after that initial vote — the one that officially makes her House speaker — that her leadership truly will be put to the test.

The incoming Democratic freshmen represent the most diverse group ever elected to the House. It is not their unprecedented gender, racial, ethnic or religious diversity that will present the biggest challenge to Pelosi. It is the political diversity of a class made up of new, energetic members of Congress, who won all across America, that will give Pelosi her power and cause her repeated headaches.

Some of the freshman members defeated longtime Democratic House members in divisive primaries; some won conservative districts that hadn’t voted Democrat in decades; and some won suburban swing districts that usually lean Republican. Some were leaders in business and the military, while others came from modest backgrounds and political anonymity. All rode a national wave of discontent about the style, tactics and pugilistic instincts of the current occupant of the White House. For all their differences, it is this last point that will unite them. This will not be a freshman class that will sit back and wait their turn. On the contrary, this class will no doubt be defined by their impatience.

After every congressional election since 1972, Harvard’s Institute of Politics (IOP) has hosted an orientation for newly-elected members of Congress. The IOP’s multi-day, bipartisan conference is designed as a crash course in public policy featuring issue experts from all levels of government, academia and business. An unfortunate staple of the IOP orientation has been Republican complaints of Harvard’s allegedly left-of-center bias, occasionally leading to GOP boycotts of the event. This year, things were a little different.

A group of progressive freshman Democrats tweeted their view that the IOP orientation lacked sufficient liberal bona fides, then staged a high-profile walkout of the event in order to lead a rally where they complained about the bipartisan nature of the conference. This, following the Capitol Hill orientation for new members of Congress, where national Democratic activists joined the ubiquitous Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezMichelle Obama weighs in on Trump, 'Squad' feud: 'Not my America or your America. It's our America' Trump steps up attacks on 'Squad' Trump says he doesn't care if attacks on 'Squad' hurt him politically MORE (D-N.Y.) in calling for primary challenges against centrist and conservative members of the Democratic caucus.

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Although many in the Democratic Party would like to see the House spend the majority of its time investigating the president, Speaker-designate Pelosi thus far has steered clear of that path. She has put forward an impressively comprehensive list of legislative priorities, including: ethics and governmental reform; rebuilding our nation’s crumbling infrastructure; improving America’s K-12 education system; addressing climate change; strengthening labor unions and protecting worker pensions; ensuring access to affordable health care; providing universal high-speed Internet; child care for working families; and reinvesting in public housing, just to name a few. This is not the agenda of someone who is easily distracted. Expect the House to take up these and other issues, one-by-one, beginning the first week of the new session.

The inescapable fact, however, is that the next two years — like the past two years — are sure to be dominated by controversies surrounding President TrumpDonald John TrumpUS-Saudi Arabia policy needs a dose of 'realpolitik' Trump talks to Swedish leader about rapper A$AP Rocky, offers to vouch for his bail Matt Gaetz ahead of Mueller hearing: 'We are going to reelect the president' MORE. Pelosi may not like the politics of a new Congress overtaken with unrestrained investigative zeal, but the snowball already has begun rolling down the hill.

Trump and his administration have delivered on a silver a platter numerous issues ripe for oversight, such as the president’s relationship with Saudi Arabia; his tax returns; his firing of former FBI director James Comey; the woefully inadequate response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico; and the controversial family separations at the Mexican border. Try as she might, it is going to be nearly impossible for Pelosi to prevent the more liberal members of her caucus from focusing on these issues, regardless of the political optics.

The biggest turning point for the new Democratic-controlled House will be when special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTop Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE delivers his much-anticipated report to the Department of Justice. Should the report show, as many expect, that the president has been complicit in crimes, conspiracies and repeated ethical violations, Congress will have no choice but to act. Some have argued that because the potential for conviction in the Senate is slim, the House should avoid the spectacle of impeachment proceedings. But Democrats in the House are more likely to argue that they have a constitutional duty to investigate such a devastating array of charges against a sitting president.

This is the future that awaits Pelosi as the likely incoming speaker. Nobody is better prepared to navigate the troubled waters ahead, but make no mistake, the next two years will be anything but smooth sailing.

Former Congressman Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2007-2013. He is the author of the 2017 book, “Dead Center: How Political Polarization Divided America and What We Can Do About It.” Follow him on Twitter @jasonaltmire.