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Republicans turn to 2023 with narrow House majority

ALINA SELYUKH, HOST:

The new session of Congress begins on Tuesday, this time with Republicans controlling the House while Democrats keep control of the Senate. NPR's congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh joins us now to talk about this.

Good morning.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Hey there.

SELYUKH: So the first vote in the House on Jan. 3 is to elect a new speaker. Does Kevin McCarthy have the votes to win?

WALSH: Right now, no. The California Republican needs 218 votes or a majority of those present and voting. Republicans are only going to have a superthin majority in the House in January - four seats, basically. So McCarthy can't afford many defections. Right now he has a math problem because there are at least five House Republicans who publicly say they oppose McCarthy. But things could change by Tuesday as talks continue.

SELYUKH: If things change in a way that means McCarthy does not get a majority, what happens then?

WALSH: It could be a big embarrassment if McCarthy doesn't win the election for speaker on the first vote. But the vote for speaker could go to a second ballot or potentially multiple ballots until McCarthy, or maybe someone else, ultimately gets a majority of those present and voting on the House floor. The last time it took multiple ballots to elect a speaker was a hundred years ago.

SELYUKH: Wow.

WALSH: McCarthy's allies admit it could be messy, and it may take more than one vote, but they predict he will win. A group of 15 House Republicans from competitive districts sent a letter to their colleagues this week saying they won't support any alternative or any so-called consensus candidate, and they will vote as many times as needed to elect McCarthy. One thing to stress about this whole process, nothing else happens in the House of Representatives until a speaker is elected. It's the only leadership position specifically mentioned in the Constitution. Members of Congress cannot even be sworn in to start a new session of Congress without a speaker first being elected. So opening day could be very chaotic.

SELYUKH: Looking ahead, with a Republican House and a Democratic Senate, what will a divided Congress mean for President Biden's agenda?

WALSH: It's going to be challenging. The Republican House is already planning votes on issues like abortion and border security that are basically dead on arrival in the Democratically controlled Senate. In the Senate, the big focus for Biden will be on getting nominees for key administration posts confirmed and judges for open vacancies in the federal judiciary. Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will make confirming more judicial nominees, and many from diverse backgrounds, a huge priority next year.

SELYUKH: What does all of this mean for the U.S. government simply functioning?

WALSH: I mean, a divided Congress with chambers with both really slim majorities means getting basic things done is going to be super hard. Congress did clear a spending bill that funds government agencies through September, but we could expect to see a real standoff over the next funding bill in the fall and potentially a government shutdown in October. Congress also needs to raise the nation's borrowing authority to avoid a potential default sometime probably in the spring.

Republicans have already signaled they won't agree to raise the debt limit unless some major cuts are made to programs like Social Security and Medicare. That's a nonstarter for Democrats. So that battle over that issue could impact financial markets and even the nation's credit rating. Biden has said he's open to working to Republicans, but it's hard to see many areas where they agree. The president is going to spend a majority of his time defending his signature bills from Republican efforts to roll them back or defund them. The administration's also going to face scores of investigations on things like the withdrawal from Afghanistan, border security and Biden's son Hunter's business dealings.

SELYUKH: Another intense year ahead of us. That's NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Thank you.

WALSH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.