Senate Democrats’ imaginary majority

Every day, it seems, brings another reminder of the severe limitations of Democrats’ illusory majority in a 50-50 Senate.

First Democratic leaders tossed Covid relief from a Ukraine aid bill at the behest of Republicans who were threatening a filibuster. Then the party entertained giving the GOP a politically volatile vote on reversing the Biden administration’s border policy. And Wednesday showed there isn’t even a majority in the Senate for Democrats’ preferred abortion rights bill.

Not to mention that the party’s signature climate and tax reform bill hasn’t moved an inch in months after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) tanked the last iteration — still-rising inflation isn’t helping its revival. And though there’s a flurry of bipartisan discussions on issues from immigration to energy to electoral vote certification, none are showing signs of imminent breakthroughs.

“It’s a majority that comes and goes. Sort of like the tide,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). “I don’t know exactly what I expected, but I certainly expected a little bit more clarity.”

Now nearly 16 months and running, it’s by far the longest 50-50 Senate in history. And Democrats have had great success confirming President Joe Biden’s nominees, punctuated this week by installing a new FTC commissioner who gave Democrats the majority and the first Black woman on the Federal Reserve Board. But on a day-to-day basis, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s job is an excruciating grind based on whether any of his members have Covid, if Republicans are feeling cooperative and where a handful of Democrats stand.

And sometimes Schumer’s tactics expose his own party’s divisions, like when Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) voted down an effort to gut the filibuster for elections reform or during Wednesday’s abortion vote. Manchin pleaded with his colleagues at a private party lunch on Tuesday to consider a narrower abortion rights bill than the expansive measure that failed.

But Schumer and the caucus charged ahead, and Manchin joined all 50 Senate Republicans in voting no on a bill that would have preserved and, in some cases, expanded abortion rights if the Supreme Court strikes down Roe v. Wade next month. That left Manchin isolated in his caucus once again — just as he was on filibuster reform and the $1.7 trillion party-line social spending bill known as “Build Back Better.”

In an interview, Manchin said he asked Democrats to write a bill that only codified Roe, rather than one that went further by barring states from enacting certain new restrictions on abortion and protecting the right to an abortion later in pregnancies.

“I would vote for codification [of] Roe v. Wade, as we’ve had 50 years of precedent,” Manchin said before dubbing the bill his party leaders had chosen “ridiculous.”

He recounted telling “all 49 members of my caucus at [Tuesday’s] luncheon” where he stood in favor of simple codification and essentially said his party was being misleading.

“They want people to believe it just basically codifies Roe v. Wade,” Manchin added. “It does not just codify Roe v. Wade.”

Manchin’s colleagues are not thrilled with either his vote or his rhetoric. In an interview, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said “we just have a different view on what the legislation is trying to do. We are trying to codify not only Roe, but also [Planned Parenthood v.] Casey and all the legal precedent.”

“This is a state-of-the-art bill,” Gillibrand said. “I disagree with Sen. Manchin and his staff’s interpretation of what this represents. I also disagree that Sen. [Susan] Collins and [Lisa] Murkowski’s bill codifies Roe. … It’s a good effort, but they left definitions vague.”

Large Senate majorities can paper over differences: Manchin has always marched to his own tune, but in the past it often didn’t matter because Democrats had votes to spare. When Manchin opposed changing the Senate rules in 2013 to scrap the 60-vote requirement for most nominations, Democrats had 55 seats and moved ahead without him.

Even when Republicans were in the majority, Manchin’s straying from party orthodoxy was rarely decisive and often viewed by colleagues as just the cost of having a red-state Democrat in the caucus.

But with 50 seats, defections from Manchin and Sinema, plus Sens. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) or Jon Tester (D-Mont.) hit very differently.

“It’s hard, we have the responsibility of being in the majority, without being able to count on all of the votes in our column. And that’s tough,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “The good news is even a 50-50 Senate gives the Democrats control over the votes that come up, it means we can move judges and other nominees.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi also faces tight margins, but can still afford to lose a handful of votes from her own party and doesn’t need to rely on Republicans given the House’s majoritarian rules. Along with Schumer, the two Democratic leaders passed the coronavirus rescue plan, new infrastructure law, reformed the postal system and are on the cusp of agreement on a competitiveness bill. Yet many in the party focus more on the big promises that Democrats have yet to deliver on climate, tax reform and new social programs.

Senate Democrats can confirm nominees with a simple majority, which means getting all their members and Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie breaking vote. That’s given the caucus some of its biggest wins recently, including confirming Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court and filling out the Federal Reserve and the FTC.

But Democrats are more interested in legislating than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose relentless focus on confirming judges helped keep his majorities unified while policy debates often caused bitter division. And the Democratic interest in successful lawmaking makes a 50-50 Senate that much tougher for them.

Most Democrats want to scrap the filibuster, but at times the caucus can’t even put up 50 votes on major issues. The traditional legislating route and its 60-vote threshold is not as easy as picking off a couple Republicans — getting 10 GOP votes requires major concessions.

Biden’s request for billions of more dollars for Covid vaccines and treatment is a perfect example: Republicans have bottled it up by demanding a vote on keeping former President Donald Trump’s pandemic-era border policies in place. Some Democrats are now conceding that they may have to allow a vote on the immigration measure in order to pass a bill Biden says is critical to combating a future coronavirus surge.

Democrats passed the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill last March, evading the filibuster via the party-line budget reconciliation process. But Democrats haven’t used that tool since, namely because Manchin tanked Build Back Better and the party hasn’t yet come up with a replacement.

Asked if it feels like Democrats are always in control of the chamber, Tester answered: “Oh God, no.” He said he can often find out more about the Senate’s cadence from Republicans, because it’s GOP demands that dictate much of the Senate’s rhythms on a weekly basis.

“I don’t feel bad about that. We’re chairing committees … helping set up the agenda. That’s the way it is,” Tester said. “But no, it’s tenuous at best.”

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