The Democratic Party was anticipating a blue wave this fall, a victory of such magnitude that Republicans would be spending the next two years fighting amongst themselves rather than controlling the purse strings. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House of Representatives, was so confident of this blue wave scenario that she sent a memo to her Democratic colleagues outlining a list of bold policy proposals that unified Democratic government in Washington could achieve in the first several months. At the top of that list: a new coronavirus relief package and defending – and building on – the Affordable Care Act.
Pelosi, however, got ahead of her skis. Democrats may very well win the presidency – as of writing, Joe Biden is closing the gap in Georgia and Pennsylvania and holding on to his vote lead in Arizona. But Democrats underperformed in Senate races. Assuming Biden wins the presidency, Democrats needed to flip three seats to control the upper chamber for the first time in six years. Instead, they have only gained one seat thus far. Despite shovelling hundreds of millions of dollars into promising races in Montana, North Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, South Carolina, and Maine, the Democratic candidates either lost or are on a trajectory to lose all of those contests.
Which means that if current trends hold, the GOP will continue to control the Senate. A prospective President Biden will be entering a Washington dominated by divided government and staring at the pesky Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader. Any of the big, bold, progressive ideas Pelosi was talking about last week would be dead in the water. As Rep. John Yarmuth, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee told the Washington Post today, ‘we all felt that we had the possibility of being able to really change the direction of the country, and that’s not looking like a realistic possibility right now.’
The Senate under McConnell has been described as the metaphorical graveyard of Democratic legislation. The Democratic-held House passes a bill with their priorities, only to watch in frustration as that very same bill sits on McConnell’s desk and gathers dust. Move the Republicans into the minority, however, and a President Biden wouldn’t have that problem. While there may be a few moderate Democratic senators who would need to be persuaded on the finer details, the Democratic Party itself would be confident that bills would at least survive. And if Mitch McConnell held his caucus and blocked any bill, the Democratic Senate majority could cobble together the votes to get rid of the legislative filibuster.
None of this is possible in a GOP-led Senate. Protections for the Affordable Care Act would be struck down by a Republican majority which still has dreams of overturning the law. A $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill wouldn’t even be considered. Because the GOP would have more votes in the chamber and control the nomination process, you could forget about the Biden administration nominating progressives for key cabinet positions. Democrats, fresh from claiming the White House, would still be left at the mercy of a grouchy McConnell – a position no Democrat wants to be in given the Kentucky senator’s record as chief obstructor during President Barack Obama’s entire eight-year tenure.
True, Biden and McConnell are old colleagues. The two have commiserated during their decades in the Senate. As VP, Biden was Obama’s Republican whisperer, somebody who could actually trek up to Capitol Hill, sit in a room with McConnell, and come away with a deal after days or weeks of negotiations. But coming after a closely-fought, nail-biter election where a GOP president has just been evicted from the White House, Democrats shouldn’t assume McConnell will be as susceptible to Biden’s entreaties.
Democrats were hoping for a transformation. In reality, it’s likely they will be entering office next year to a Washington, DC governed by the same, old legislative gridlock.
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