NASHVILLE — Washington's political world is expected to turn upside down Thursday for Tennessee Republican congressmen when Democrats assume control of the U.S. House after eight years of GOP rule.
Republicans' current 236-197 majority vanishes with the swearing in of members of the 116th Congress, followed by the presumed election of California Democrat Nancy Pelosi as the new speaker.
Democrats will have 235 members compared to Republicans' 199, a 40-seat swing that's smacked down Republicans to minority status, an unenviable position in the partisan hothouse.
Seven Tennessee Republicans, four of them veterans accustomed to being first and three freshmen just coming in, will have to adjust to becoming last in the pecking order.
For example, the only Republican member to have actually previously served under Democratic control, Rep. Phil Roe of Johnson, Tennessee, first elected in 2018, loses his chairmanship of the Veterans Affairs Committee as Democrats take power.
Meanwhile, two veteran Tennessee Democratic congressmen, Reps. Jim Cooper of Nashville and Steve Cohen of Memphis, have suddenly become a lot more important.
It's a fairly dramatic change of circumstance, said Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, a Vanderbilt University political science professor.
"In the House, it's no fun to be in the minority because if the majority, if it's at all cohesive, controls everything," he said.
An immediate focus will be the ongoing partial government funding showdown over President Donald Trump's demands for more funding for a border wall on the U.S.'s border with Mexico. The standoff is now in its second weekend, impacting more than 800,000 federal employees and government contractors.
Republicans, meanwhile, continue to control the Senate, adding two seats in the 2018 elections. Republican Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood will be sworn in to replace Sen. Bob Corker, a Chattanooga Republican, who didn't seek re-election.
House Republicans' loss of power plays out in ways ranging from setting priorities, what gets passed, investigations, oversight, and hearings. Even the ability to offer floor amendments aimed at changing legislation is out of their hands.
"You're talking about limited ability to have any role," Oppenheimer said of Republicans, who used their majority to repeatedly investigate former secretary of state and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server, to attacking independent counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential race and other matters.
"It's going to give the Democrats a substantial working majority. That's the bad news," agreed Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, an Ooltewah Republican. "The good news for me is I've always had very good working relationships on both sides of the aisle."
A likely silver lining for FleischmannFleischmann is a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which recommends legislation to provide budget authority for specific federal agencies and programs. Put more bluntly, it's the ability to disburse funds.
He's the only Tennessean on the House panel, which is often less partisan than other committees. He often works with U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee but plans to retire in two years.
"I will actually have much more influence in terms of the appropriations process," said Fleischmann. "So on the appropriations side, I don't see see a big loss in the House for me."
There's more to it than that.
Republican retirements, GOP incumbents' defeats in November and a four-way battle for the top Republican post on Appropriations have cleared the way for Fleischmann to move up. For example, several current Republican subcommittee chairmen, including Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia, and Rep. Robert Aderholt of Alabama, lost their bids to become the top Republican on the panel.
As a result, Fleischmann is in good position to become the ranking Republican on one of the more important subcommittees.
The congressman said much of the most partisan House fighting comes in the standing committees of Congress such as the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which have legislative authority, authorize programs and conduct oversight over agencies.
"That's where I think you're going to see the major difference because Democrats will prevail on their committee votes and Democrats will prevail on the floor and that's where we're going to need the Senate to step up and balance everything," Fleischmann said.
Fleischmann said while he has tried "from Day 1" in Congress to be "civil and respectful to everyone," he and other Republicans will have their principles and fight Democrats on issues "if they try to go too far left" and notes that a number of new freshman Democrats are moderates and will face problems in 2020 if their party pushes them too far to the left.
Not long after the interview, Fleischmann sharply criticized Democrats over the standoff with Trump over wall funding, tweeting, "In 2006 Senate Democrats supported greater #bordersecurity. In 2018 Senate Democrats shutdown the government over #bordersecurity. What changed? Democrats remain so focused on obstructing @POTUS agenda while the threat to our country & the crisis at our border remains."
Tennessee House delegation: Men only
In another change, Tennessee's House delegation is all male for the first time since 2002 with the departure of Republicans Blackburn and Diane Black, who ran and lost a GOP primary bid for governor.
Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a South Pittsburg physician first elected in 2010, who serves on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, did not respond to multiple requests to his office for an interview or statement regarding his take on the new Congress and his role.
But on Friday, DesJarlais, a member of the hard-right House GOP's Free Caucus, lashed out at Pelosi and Democrats over illegal immigration in a Facebook post.
"Only a week ago we were talking about an illegal alien's murderous rampage through California," he wrote. "ANOTHER killed a policeman this week. The sheriff blames California's sanctuary laws, rewarding criminal aliens and making victims of innocent Americans.
"THIS is the open-borders agenda Nancy Pelosi and Democrats in Congress are defending," he added.
Efforts to reach Rep. David Kustoff, a Memphis Republican, were unsuccessful as well.
The freshman members are all Republicans: former Knox County mayor Tim Burchett, who previously served in the Tennessee General Assembly, Mark Green of Clarksville, who has been serving as a state senator, and John Rose of Cookeville.
Pelosi as speaker
Cooper is the Tennessee House delegation's most senior member. A member of House Democrats' moderate-to-conservative Blue Dogs Coalition, he has been critical of Pelosi, hasn't voted for her as speaker in the past and doesn't expect to on Thursday either.
"I haven't supported her for eight years and I don't plan on changing that," Cooper said in an interview.
Asked why, the Nashvillian said that while Pelosi was then-House speaker in 2008, Democrats "suffered the greatest defeat of any party in 80 years. Personally, she's a very fine person, but her unpopularity nationwide is staggering."
A number of Democrats who won in normally Republican districts this year had stated publicly they would not vote for her.
Potential subcommittee chairmanships
A member of the House Armed Services as well as the Oversight and Government Reform Committee — as is DesJarlais — Cooper believes he is in line for chairmanshipship of the Armed Services panel's Strategic Forces Subcommittee.
Armed Services is considered one of the more bipartisan House panels.
The often fiercely partisan Oversight and Government Reform Committee will now be headed by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland. Cummings, believes the panel under GOP control gave Trump and his administration a free pass. He plans to look into the administration's handling of hurricanes Irma and Maria, Trump's controversial family separation policy at the border, decisions to revoke security clearances of high ranking former officials who have criticized Trump and other areas.
Cooper said that while he would prefer the panel issue subpoenas only on a bipartisan bases, given recent Republican chairmens' actions "there will be a temptation for many Democrats to say if they did it, we should too."
Is Trump impeachment on horizon?
As for some Democrats' talk about impeachment of Trump, which Pelosi and other leaders are downplaying, Cooper said various aspects of Mueller's investigation is "an entirely separate thing and we'll just have to see what happens there. I think we should just await the Mueller report and see what that yields."
During the 115th Congress, Memphis Democrat Cohen introduced five articles of impeachment that included obstruction of justice over Trump's firing of then-FBI Director James Comey. It got nowhere.
Speaking last week on CNN, Cohen, a Judiciary Committee member, called the 115th Congress "embarassing" for what he called Republicans' refusal to provide oversight and "instead [be] complicit with Trump and everything he's done to violate the Constitution."
But he said Democrats need to await Mueller's report.
"I think like in Watergate, it'll be a road map to areas where we need to proceed" in terms of hearings, Cohen said, later adding "whether they lead to impeachment or not is another issue."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.