We are just over a year into Joe Biden’s presidency, which has seen the Democratic Party assume control of a federal trifecta (that is, the House, Senate and presidency) for the first time since 2009.
To say it has been a year of ups and downs would be an understatement. The Biden administration has certainly scored some major accomplishments, passing the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill with bipartisan support and vaccinating hundreds of millions of Americans.
But the lows of the administration are as conspicuous as the highs, with the most recent example being the failure of Democrats to pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Bill.
Perhaps no moment better epitomizes the struggles of Democrats to capitalize on their newfound power. The bill garnered support from all 50 senators in the caucus, and had the backing of the White House as well, meaning Democrats had a majority. But despite copious efforts and strenuous urging on the part of President Biden and other prominent Democrats, the party failed to pass the bill due to the refusal of Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) to alter the filibuster in any way.
From a strictly objective standpoint, it was also possible for Democrats to pass the bill had 10 Republican senators supported it; this is how some of the former party’s early successes, such as the coronavirus relief package and the infrastructure bill passed without filibuster alterations. However, Democrats surely assumed power with the knowledge that Republicans were not frequently going to be their allies in droves.
Past behavior is itself evidence of this, seen first in then-President Obama’s abortive efforts to secure Republican support for his post-2008 economic crisis stimulus package. The roughly $800 billion package, slimmed down from an initially higher price tag, passed the House with no Republican support and the Senate with a meager three Republican votes, despite some GOP members previously making public comments indicating the measure could have garnered nearly 80 votes (which would have required about 20 Republicans to support it).
This stimulus package has since been derided as being too small while still “offer[ing] fuel for the president’s enemies to portray him as a profligate deficit spender,” per Neal Irwin of the New York Times. Irwin argues persuasively that, had Democrats taken a ‘go big or go home’ approach, the nation might have seen greater economic recovery, which might have prevented them from losing the House in the 2010 midterm elections.
Slightly later in the Obama administration, a similar scenario transpired, seen in President Obama’s assiduous but ultimately fruitless efforts to obtain Republican senatorial support for the Affordable Care Act. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, Obama recounts colorfully in his memoir “A Promised Land” that he ultimately learned after “endless rounds of negotiations” that there was nothing he could do to obtain Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa)’s vote:
At the White House a few weeks later, Obama finally sought closure. He asked Grassley: What if Democrats agreed to all his proposed changes—then would he support the bill? “I guess not, Mr. President,” Grassley replied…
The Affordable Care Act passed without a single Republican vote in the Senate, despite Republicans amending the bill at least 160 times through well over three dozen bipartisan roundtable sessions, according to USA Today. Democrats almost certainly would have passed it sooner with more ambitious mechanisms had they not gone to such lengths to satiate Republicans to no avail, and this may well have yielded more enduring popularity for them, given the bill’s persistently favorable ratings from its inception to present.
Finally, and perhaps most famously, the Republican-led Senate refused to consider Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court, on the grounds that they would not seat a justice in the year leading up to a presidential election. Four years later, the Republican-led Senate reneged on its word, filling the vacancy left by the deceased Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Amy Coney Barrett.
The Republican Party has shown no reservations about being nakedly political when in power, nor does it appear particularly committed to bipartisanship when a minority, as shown by the examples above. Some, like Roosevelt University Political Science Professor David Faris in his book “It’s Time to Fight Dirty,” argue that the Democrats should engage in similar chicanery and procedural manipulation to achieve their ends.
Moderate Democrats, such as Manchin and Sinema, argue against this, with Manchin warning that the Senate would become “a body without rules” if the filibuster were discarded, and Sinema stressing her desire not to exacerbate “the underlying disease of division infecting our country.”
Manchin’s point would be compelling if there were any reason to believe Republicans would keep the filibuster intact if or when they retake power—though they did not do away with the legislative filibuster in the past, former President Trump is a vocal opponent of it, and with his stranglehold on the party still very much intact (see: Trump approval ratings and poll numbers within the GOP), it’s hard to imagine the party would hesitate to alter the filibuster if it retook power in 2024 under a Trump banner, as argued by David Litt in The Atlantic. Moreover, despite deriding Democrats for altering the filibuster for most non-Supreme Court judicial nominees in 2014, Republicans altered the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees in 2017.
As for Sinema, she inaccurately describes the Democratic legislative agenda she spurns as ‘divisive,’ when many of its measures are overwhelmingly popular, as reported by Vox. The Build Back Better Act, also previously derided by Sinema, enjoys lesser but still substantial popularity—more than enough to make the ‘divisive’ label unwarranted.
Refusing to use the tools at their disposal in the name of defending the integrity of the Senate is inane when one considers that Republicans are highly unlikely to show these institutions the same reverence when they almost inevitably retake power.
Democrats are by no means obligated to be as craven and brazenly political as their Republican counterparts. But it is far from unreasonable to expect them to use their power to pass significant popular legislation, legislation that is needed to combat the ongoing pandemic as well as Republican efforts to frustrate the ability of many to vote.
This stagnancy is particularly egregious in the context of a potential “high-water mark” for Democrats’ federal power for the next decade, as forecast by the venerable Democratic data guru David Shor. Historically, the incumbent president’s party suffers in the midterm elections, and this trend seems likely to repeat itself given President Biden’s underwater polling numbers. Consequently, Republicans may be but months away from entirely shackling the Democratic administration and vanquishing any lingering hopes to pass landmark legislation.
The Democratic moment in the sun is likely passing. Given the above, they would be wise to capitalize on it and risk flying too close to the sun in doing so, rather than letting the moment fade with so little to show for it. Fortune favors the bold, including on Capitol Hill. Sens. Manchin and Sinema would do well to remember that.