WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Donald Trump faced greater restraints on his presidency after Democrats won control of the US House of Representatives and pledged to hold the Republican accountable after a tumultuous two years in the White House.
Mr Trump and his fellow Republicans expanded their control of the US Senate in Tuesday’s midterm elections, following a divisive campaign marked by fierce clashes over race and immigration.
But they lost their majority in the House, a setback for Mr Trump after a campaign that became a referendum on his leadership.
With some races still undecided, Democrats were headed for a gain of more than 30 seats, beyond the 23 they needed to claim their first majority in the 435-member House in eight years.
Seizing the Senate had never looked a likely prospect for the Democrats, and in the event they fell short of a tidal wave of voter support that would have given them control of both chambers of Congress.
Winning a Senate majority would have allowed Democrats to apply the brakes even more firmly on Mr Trump’s policy agenda and given them the ability to block any future Supreme Court nominees.
However, the Democrats will now head House committees that can investigate the president’s tax returns, possible business conflicts of interest and possible links between his 2016 election campaign and Russia.
The Democrats could also force Mr Trump to scale back his legislative ambitions, possibly dooming his promises to fund a border wall with Mexico, pass a second major tax-cut package, or carry out his hardline policies on trade.
“Today is more than about Democrats and Republicans, it’s about restoring the Constitution’s checks and balances to the Trump administration,” Nancy Pelosi, leader of the House Democrats, told supporters at victory party.
Despite his party’s poor showing in House elections, Mr Trump wrote on Twitter, “Tremendous success tonight.”
Mr Trump had hardened his rhetoric in recent weeks on issues that appealed to his conservative core supporters. He threw himself into the campaign, issuing warnings about a caravan of Latin American migrants headed to the border with Mexico and condemnations of liberal American “mobs” he says oppose him.
The party with the presidency often loses seats in the House in midterm elections. Former President Barack Obama’s Democrats suffered what he called a “shellacking” in congressional elections in 2010.
With divided leadership in Congress and a president who has taken an expansive view of executive power, Washington could be in store for even deeper political polarisation and legislative gridlock.
Financial markets often favour Washington gridlock because it preserves the status quo and reduces uncertainty, even though many in the market this time around had been hoping for a continuation of the Republican agenda.
Wall Street was set for a modestly firmer open yesterday and global stocks rose after the election results. The fact that House gains for Democrats may rule out further tax cuts sent the dollar and Treasury yields sharply lower.
Losing the House will test Mr Trump’s ability to compromise, something he has shown little interest in over the last two years with Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress.
There may be some room to work with Democrats on issues with bipartisan support such as an infrastructure improvement package or protections against prescription drug price increases.
Foreign policy has been an area that Mr Trump has approached in a very personal way, sometimes antagonising allies such as Canada while making what critics see as unduly warm overtures to traditional rivals or foes.
But House Democrats are expected to try to harden US policy toward Saudi Arabia, Russia and North Korea, and maintain the status quo on areas like China and Iran.
The Kremlin said yesterday it saw no prospects for an improvement in relations with the United States following the elections.
“We can say with a large amount of confidence that of course no bright prospects for normalizing Russian-American relations can be seen on the horizon,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Mr Trump has sought better ties with Russia but the two countries are at odds over the civil war in Syria, a nuclear arms treaty and the US allegations of election meddling.