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Republicans take control of the House in this new session of Congress

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, a new Congress begins, and Republicans take charge of the House. Democrats keep the Senate and, of course, the White House. NPR political correspondent Susan Davis reports on what to expect when you're expecting divided government.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: One of the challenges President Biden faces with a new Republican House majority - he doesn't know them all that well.

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: Since becoming president, we haven't met often. Look. I can work with anybody. We want to make sure our country's successful.

DAVIS: That was presumptive Speaker Kevin McCarthy following his first private meeting with Biden after the election. McCarthy used the meeting to invite Biden to take a trip with him to the U.S.-Mexico border and to make it clear that there will be a new check on his power, particularly on issues like immigration.

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MCCARTHY: I think the administration got an indication it's going to be different.

DAVIS: Divided government isn't known for legislative output, at least in modern times. When Republicans took control of Congress during the Obama administration, it resulted in one of the least productive eras in congressional history. But the country seems to prefer it. Divided government has been the norm in more years than unified party control since at least the Reagan era. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has long framed divided government as an opportunity to try to solve big problems, as he did back in 2014 after Republicans took control of the Senate.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: When the American people choose divided government, I don't think it means they don't want us to do anything. I think it means they want us to look for areas of agreement.

DAVIS: Molly Reynolds is a nonpartisan congressional scholar with the Brookings Institution. She does not forecast any major legislative breakthroughs in the near future. The parties are just too polarized, she says, and it will be hard enough for Republicans to remain unified with their narrow four-seat majority.

MOLLY REYNOLDS: One reason that House majorities fail to accomplish their agendas is because of divisions within the party before we even get to divisions between the parties.

DAVIS: Reynolds said the to-do list is most likely to include what she called the basic responsibilities of governing, like passing spending bills to avoid government shutdowns and raising the nation's borrowing limit to avoid an unprecedented debt default.

REYNOLDS: We should not have high expectations for it being especially legislatively productive.

DAVIS: North Carolina Republican Congressman Patrick McHenry will chair the Financial Services Committee. He said voters send this message to Republicans in the 2022 election.

PATRICK MCHENRY: Let's be serious. Let's focus on the big things. Actually, I think what they said to both parties is, stop being crazy, and stop being stupid.

DAVIS: He said his priority is to steer his committee towards tangible bipartisan policies, like boosting small businesses.

MCHENRY: Divided government can create lasting policy changes. It's just hard to come by.

DAVIS: California Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna said if Republicans focus on economic bills, like the recent bipartisan CHIPS Act to increase domestic production of semiconductors, they're most likely to find bipartisan cooperation with Democrats like him.

RO KHANNA: We need to focus on the issues that people care about - how we're going to bring manufacturing back, how we're going to make America the strongest economy.

DAVIS: Cross-party relations have been at a low point in recent years, especially following the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Khanna said many lawmakers will need to put those feelings aside if there's any hope of legislating.

KHANNA: It has been a toxic environment, but my philosophy is if something will advance the interests of America, if something is going to help the American people, I'll put aside the personal acrimony to work on that.

DAVIS: That might be hard with Republicans planning to launch a number of investigations into the Biden administration, including the president's family and their business ties.

Susan Davis, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.