WASHINGTON — As Congress prepares for its 116th session in January, several South Carolina lawmakers are bracing for a daunting new reality: Life in the House minority.
Democrats easily reclaimed the majority in the midterm elections for the first time since 2010, meaning the five Republicans in South Carolina's seven-member House delegation will no longer be part of the party in power.
Four of the Republicans will be experiencing minority status for the first time in their political careers.
In the days after the election, U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman said the mood among House Republicans was somber but quickly turned to acceptance of the challenges ahead.
"It is what it is; the voters have spoken and we just have to get to work," said Norman, R-Rock Hill. "Where we can have agreement with the Democrats, we’ll agree, and where we don’t, we’ll fight like hell to stop it."
Congressional experts warn that Republicans accustomed to relevance are in for a rude awakening.
Unlike in the Senate, where major legislation often requires 60-vote supermajorities and individual members hold power through the filibuster, members of the House minority have minimal leverage to influence the debate.
"Really, the main things that they can try to do is work on their messaging, play the role of the opposition and essentially work to take back control of the House in the next cycle," said Jordan Ragusa, a political science professor at the College of Charleston who focuses on Congress.
As the only South Carolina Republican who has served in the minority before, Lexington-area U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson said he's telling colleagues to rest assured they will continue to play a role in the next couple of years, albeit a different one — as an adversary.
"Whatever the majority provides, I think it’s very important to come up with positive alternatives," said Wilson, R-Springdale. "They may not be adopted, obviously, but you still come up with positive alternatives to show the contrast and then ultimately set the stage for an election victory."
That focus on developing "positive alternatives" has been a consistent theme among Republicans in recent weeks, indicating some of the lessons learned from the party's struggles on issues like health care this past session.
After rallying opposition to the Affordable Care Act — widely known as Obamacare — for years, Republicans only appeared to realize once they took back both chambers of Congress and the White House they had not coalesced behind any specific plan to replace it.
That forced the party to spend the first several months of their time in power devising new health care proposals, none of which were ever able to garner enough support to make it through the Republican-controlled Congress.
In addition to crafting their own internal ideas though, Republicans also said there are several areas, like infrastructure, that offer the potential for rare bipartisan teamwork in the next two years.
As an example of the benefits of bipartisanship, Wilson pointed to his cooperation with U.S. Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., the last time he was in the minority, when she chaired the military personnel subcommittee and he was the panel's senior Republican.
"We worked together closely, and so it was a seamless transfer when I shifted from ranking member to chairman," Wilson said. "The perception is that we’re at eternal war, but we’re not actually."
The state's Republicans will still have a couple of valuable allies in key roles next session.
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, was picked for the third-ranking role in the Democratic ranks as House majority whip. Though Clyburn has a radically different set of policy priorities than the Republicans, he is uniformly respected within the delegation as a team player when it comes to state-specific issues.
"We’ve always worked together very closely with Congressman Clyburn," Wilson said.
Additionally, U.S. Rep.-elect William Timmons, the Greenville Republican replacing Trey Gowdy, won the only freshman spot on the influential GOP steering committee, which decides committee assignments for the rest of the party and allows him to help his home-state colleagues get their preferred placements.
Norman, who has long had his eyes on the financial services committee, said California Democrat Maxine Waters' ascension to chairwoman has only increased his desire to get on the panel in order to fight back against her.
Wilson pursued the top Republican spot on the foreign affairs committee, even though the position will now be ranking member instead of chairman, but lost out to U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas.
While they no longer control the House, U.S. Rep. Tom Rice of Myrtle Beach argued Republicans still have more power today than in his first few years in office after being elected in 2012 when Republicans had the House majority but Democrats held the presidency and the Senate.
"It’s not very often that one party holds the House and the Senate and the presidency, and we still have two of those levers, so I don’t think it’ll change terribly," he said.
Despite the electoral setback, Republicans are largely not calling for a fundamental shift in the party's approach heading into 2020, reinstalling much of the same leadership atop the party.
Even as some lawmakers quietly wish Republican President Donald Trump would tone down his rhetoric and focus more energy on promoting the tax reform measure that passed last year, they have come to accept that he is unlikely to change.
Instead, congressional Republicans said it will be up to them to highlight their achievements and continue to offer fresh ideas in the coming years.
Expected House Speaker "Nancy Pelosi will put up a startling contrast to the Republican vision, and we should offer a good conservative alternative, and I think that will be enough for the American people to say, 'Hey, maybe we should give them another chance,'" Rice said. "But we’ll see."