New presidents have only so long to get big legislative initiatives done. It’s already June, and the clock is ticking for President Joe Biden. Big bills take a long time. Congress will spend much of the summer on recess. They’ll be at work in the fall, but by the end of the year, Democratic and Republican lawmakers will be obsessed with winning reelection in 2022.
But Biden has an even bigger problem than the calendar. In the last election, Democrats failed to win a majority in the Senate, and the body is now tied 50-50. If Republicans are united in opposition, Senate Democrats can pass bills only if they keep all 50 of their senators in line and then rely on Vice President Kamala Harris to break ties. It’s a difficult process that makes it extremely hard to pass controversial bills.
And yet many in the Democratic base, and certainly in its progressive wing, appear to expect the Senate to pass far-reaching, historic, groundbreaking legislation in the mold of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society — even though FDR and LBJ had huge Senate majorities, while Biden has none.
Biden’s challenge is doubly difficult. First, he would have to somehow leverage his 50-50 non-majority into a vote to eliminate the legislative filibuster in the Senate. Two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, have announced their opposition to killing the filibuster — if they stick to their guns, that’s enough to doom the project right there. In addition, there are likely other Democrats who oppose killing the filibuster but simply haven’t said so publicly.
So the mission is already pretty much impossible. But say Democrats were somehow able to nuke the filibuster. Then, to pass the For the People Act, their massive and likely unconstitutional bill federalizing elections around the country, or to pass the American Jobs Act, their massive $2 trillion infrastructure-that’s-mostly-not-infrastructure spending bill, or to pass the American Families Plan, their massive $2 trillion social spending proposal — to pass any of them over unified Republican opposition, they would have to rally all 50 Democratic senators and call in Harris for the tiebreaking vote.
The likelihood of all that happening is very, very low. And Manchin appeared to drive a nail into the coffin of progressive dreams this week when he published an op-ed in the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette in which he flatly declared he “will not vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster” and that he will not vote for the For the People Act, either. If Democrats had won an actual majority in the Senate, say, 53 or 54 seats, losing Manchin would not kill their hopes. But with no majority, in a 50-50 Senate, every vote is indispensable.
Manchin’s declaration touched a nerve among progressive Democrats who saw their whole New Deal/Great Society vision evaporating in front of their eyes. Perhaps “touched a nerve” is too weak a term. Manchin struck a hammer blow to the nerve, and Democrats and their media allies erupted in a deep and primal scream.
“Manchin’s op-ed might as well be titled, ‘Why I’ll vote to preserve Jim Crow,’” tweeted New York Democratic Rep. Mondaire Jones. The Atlantic’s Jemele Hill tweeted that Manchin is a “cowardly, power-hungry white dude” who is upholding “white supremacy.” (Just for good measure, Hill also called Manchin a “clown.”) The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson wrote a column headlined “Joe Manchin retreats to fantasyland and sticks America with the consequences,” saying that Manchin’s “party and his nation will pay a terrible price for his hallucinations” about being able to work with recalcitrant Republicans.
And so on. Manchin’s Democratic colleagues in the Senate are being more diplomatic, in public at least, but they are still terribly upset. “Who isn’t frustrated?” one anonymous senator told Politico. “Do you want to see the patches where I pulled my hair out?”
All seem to have forgotten that they are trying to change the country without having a majority of seats in the United States Senate. What are they thinking? In some ways, the Democratic filibuster frustration echoes a weird episode among Republicans in 2013 when Sen. Ted Cruz led an effort to defund Obamacare. The only problem was Republicans, with a majority in the House but just 45 seats in the Senate, did not have the votes to do it. There was not a snowball’s chance in hell Cruz could succeed, yet he kept exhorting Republicans that if they fought hard enough, somehow they could win.
Now, progressive Democrats are urging their Democratic senators — who with 50 seats are in better shape than Republicans in 2013, but still short of a majority — to fight, fight, fight to kill the filibuster and pass Biden’s enormous spending bills. But here’s the bottom line: You want to pass big bills in the Senate? Win a majority of seats in the Senate. Until Democrats can do that, they’ll have a very hard time.
— Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.