Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a workers' rights rally in 2018.
Photo by Keith Mellnick, courtesy AFGE, licensed under CC BY.
President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. will shoulder the burdens of national leadership today, but with due deference to the vast responsibilities of the presidency, his new post may not be the hardest job in Washington, D.C. At least not for now.
That distinction may belong to the party leaders in each house of the new Congress, especially House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer. With Democrats in full control of Congress and the White House for the first time since President Barack Obama’s first two years in office, they must try to deliver an ambitious progressive agenda, despite having only the barest margin with which to work.
Schumer’s job, especially, is a nightmare. With Senate seats divided 50-50, and a majority depending on soon-to-be Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote, he can count on outvoting the Republicans only when he gets Vermont’s Sen. Bernie Sanders and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin to agree. Sanders is a self-described democratic socialist who is not even formally a Democrat. He comes from a state where voters backed Biden by more than two to one over Donald Trump. Manchin is a throwback to an era of moderate to conservative Democrats, representing a state where Trump just received more than 68% of the votes.
Good luck, Chuck.
If the new Senate leader takes comfort in anything, it may be that his Republican nemesis, Mitch McConnell, faces an equally daunting challenge in keeping his own caucus united. Maine’s Susan Collins and, to pick one possibility among many, Ted Cruz of Texas are hardly ideological bedfellows. Schumer and McConnell will spend the next two years or more as political snipers, each trying to pick off one or two members of the other’s squadron in every legislative battle where a majority can decide the outcome.
It is not clear exactly which battles those will be. Senate rules require at least 60 votes to advance most legislation. But after the filibuster was eradicated for judicial and senior executive branch confirmations in recent years, and with the use of the bare-majority reconciliation process to pass laws as controversial as the Affordable Care Act, many Democrats are ready to abolish the 60-vote constraint altogether. Whether Schumer is prepared to go that far – and whether he can assemble the 51 votes needed to change Senate rules – remains to be seen. If I had to bet, it would be that he isn’t, or can’t.
Pelosi’s challenges are almost as large. At this writing, her Democrats held a 221-211 edge in the House, with three vacant seats. One, in upstate New York, is the subject of a court battle over absentee ballots in a photo-finish race. Another was created by death of incoming Rep. Luke Letlow, a Republican from Louisiana, of COVID-19 complications that arose after the November election. And on Jan. 15, Louisiana’s Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Democrat, resigned to accept a post in the Biden administration.
Pelosi’s huge caucus is, if anything, even more ideologically diverse than Schumer’s in the Senate. She has hard-left members from solidly blue districts, and moderates from swing districts who have to thread a needle between surviving Democratic primaries against more progressive challengers and avoiding a “socialist” label that can sink them in a general election.
On the Republican side of the House, the GOP caucus is torn over the decision by a majority of that group to support challenges to some of Biden’s Electoral College votes hours after the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riot, and the subsequent decision by 10 GOP representatives (out of 207 Republicans voting) to back last week’s impeachment of Trump. Republican leader Kevin McCarthy is taking heavy fire from both sides in the badly split party.
What does it all mean legislatively, and for Biden’s plans to overcome the pandemic and rebuild the sectors of the economy and workforce that it has devastated?
In the near term, we can expect some movement on measures that have support on both sides of the aisle. Biden’s proposal to issue another $1,400 stimulus payment to most Americans has enough GOP support to pass, now that Democrats are in charge and can bring it to the floor. More financial aid to states, both for COVID-19 measures and general relief, is probably in the cards too. But Biden’s proposal for a $15 per hour national minimum wage is likely to be a heavier lift. Even Democratic senators in rural states may balk after hearing from owners of franchise restaurant and other small businesses that are barely clinging to life amid lockdown and social distancing.
More extreme proposals, such as statehood for Washington, D.C., which Pelosi is advocating, are probably doomed to serve as markers for the next campaign. It is hard to picture Manchin, or New Hampshire senators Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, or independent Angus King of Maine, running on a platform that says their states are better off handing power to a single city-state whose dominant economic engine is the federal government to which it is host. Maybe party loyalty will overcome regional interests, but I would not bet on it.
And this, ultimately, is one of the great features – not weaknesses – of the American system. It drives policies toward the political center, even when the parties are as polarized as they are today. We enact policies on which we can agree, and when a proposal fails to make it through the legislative process, it becomes a benchmark for voters to consider in the next election.
But legislators don’t seek office to make proposals that fail. Lawmakers like to make laws, and they look to their party leadership to make it happen. It is going to be arguably the toughest job in D.C., at least for the next couple of years.