U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Fort Wayne, Indiana, U.S. (Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg)

Trump Constrained as Democrats Take Back Control of U.S. House

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump, who spent the past two years wielding the powers of the presidency unbound by party or political convention, is now constrained.

The Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives cripples his conservative agenda and opens the way for unfettered investigations into his scandal-plagued administration, his presidential campaign and his family’s business empire.

Trump Constrained as Democrats Take Back Control of U.S. House

His personal tax returns may fall into the hands of his opponents. His re-election -- always far from certain -- may be even more dependent on the economy remaining at full steam.

Democrats picked up at least 26 GOP-held seats to gain control of the House. In the Senate, Republicans preserved their majority. Contests were still too close to call for Senate races in Florida, Montana and Arizona.

Trump ignored the House loss in a morning tweet, saying: "Received so many Congratulations from so many on our Big Victory last night, including from foreign nations (friends) that were waiting me out, and hoping, on Trade Deals. Now we can all get back to work and get things done!"

The president now faces a fundamental choice. He can reach for bipartisan deals in areas such as infrastructure and health care or stick to a well-worn strategy of stoking passions on immigration and other divisive issues to maintain enthusiasm with his supporters.

“The president’s agenda isn’t going to change, regardless of whose party is there,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Tuesday evening as results came in. “We’re still going to be an administration that’s focused on lowering taxes, growing our economy, creating jobs, defeating ISIS, remaking the judiciary, fixing the tremendous opioid crisis that we have. I think we can work with Democrats on that.”

Ambitions Dashed

But Trump’s ambitions to repeal Obamacare, dramatically restrict immigration, and push forward with additional tax cuts are dashed for the next two years with Representative Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, poised to retake the Speaker’s gavel.

“The most likely outcome will be the Trump legislative agenda coming to a screeching halt,” said Doug Heye, a former spokesman for the House leadership and the Republican National Committee. “Look back at the Obama presidency. Election night 2010, the Obama legislative agenda ended.”

Trump’s cabinet, close aides and other senior administration officials face a gauntlet of subpoenas and public hearings in which hostile Democratic lawmakers will be able to rake through embarrassing ethical and political controversies. That, in turn, provides fodder for the field of Democratic challengers who will spend the next two years making the case against Trump’s re-election.

Should Trump decide to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller or pull the plug on his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, House Democrats may not be able to stop him. But with control of the legislative chamber, they should be able to surface his findings or even pick up where he leaves off with their own investigation.

Yet a Republican majority in the Senate ensures that Trump can continue to reshape the U.S. judiciary, a top priority for many conservatives.

Senate Control

GOP control of the Senate also gives Trump more leeway to win confirmation of his political appointments, and limits Democrats’ ability to constrain his foreign policy. He’ll retain significant leverage in the budget fights expected to erupt in coming weeks as the White House demands more money for his priorities, topped by a wall on the southern U.S. border, and cuts in spending elsewhere in the government.

Still, the president and congressional Republicans must grapple with a remarkable political comeback by Democrats just two years after the GOP swept federal elections.

Few expect Trump to reinvent himself or abandon his confrontational approach. But he has room to make deals.

“I don’t think he’s going to be chastened,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to Harry Reid, the last Democratic Senate Majority leader. “The real question mark here is whether the president is going to want to cut deals or not. What, if anything, do the president and his team want to do over the next two years?”

Infrastructure Week

Trump -- a builder at heart -- has often said he’s eager to strike a deal on infrastructure development, and he may even be willing to buck Republican congressional leadership to do it. During a White House bill signing ceremony last month, the president told Democratic lawmakers he had “a feeling” they’re “going to be doing a lot of infrastructure together.”

Other potential areas of compromise include reducing prescription drug prices, an overhaul of federal prison sentencing rules and improved workforce training -- issues championed by the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Pelosi has experience working with Trump. The Democratic leader provided key votes on budget bills during his first two years, earning concessions by preserving Democratic unity as the Republican majority fractured.

Trump also agreed to an immigration deal with Democratic leaders in 2017 before reneging in the face of pushback from hard-liners in the White House and Senate.

But that experience left many Democrats skeptical that Trump is reliable, particularly if compromise requires crossing his base supporters.

“Based on what I’ve seen over the past two years, I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Manley said.