In Congress, what goes on behind closed doors?
© Greg Nash

As a former House Republican staffer, I would not deign to explain what is happening behind the closed doors of the House and Senate Democratic caucuses. That allusion, in itself, misrepresents how things really work. Most serious, private political discussions take place in small, informal groups of members and not in formal caucus meetings and debates.

What is left for us unconnected outsiders are the breadcrumbs left by self-interested players spinning their versions of things to a media always hungry for any good gossip and scoops. You can’t really call such revelations “fake news,” since there has to be some element of truth involved for the leakers to retain any credibility. Let’s just say their insider leaks have more the quality of wishful thinking than sure-fire predicting. 

It’s no secret that fierce debates are already taking place within Democratic ranks about the future of the party, both in terms of the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential election. What directions, themes, issues, and postures should the Democrats take to retain control of Congress and the White House?

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As that wise sage, Yogi Berra, is said to have said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” As it turns out, for congressional Democrats we’re talking about a three-pronged fork — left, right and middle, though the real debate is between the liberal left and the moderate middle. However, instead of arguing about the correct fork, Democrats have their knives out to carve their “true” course for the party.

Further complicating matters is President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions GOP skepticism looms over bipartisan spending deal Biden vaccine rule sets stage for onslaught of lawsuits MORE who talks a good game about the need for bipartisanship and compromise while pursuing what many knowledgeable observers characterize as the most progressive agenda since President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The infighting manifests itself in the Senate in behind-the-scenes debates among Democrats over how to deal with independent-minded senators like Joe ManchinJoe ManchinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions Graham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate Graham says he has COVID-19 'breakthrough' infection MORE (W.Va.) and Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaGraham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate Key Senate Republican praises infrastructure deal The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate finalizes .2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill MORE (Ariz.), and what to do about the filibuster. Liberal Democrats want their party leader, Sen. Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerPoll: Majority of voters say more police are needed amid rise in crime America's middle class is getting hooked on government cash — and Democrats aren't done yet The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate finalizes .2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill MORE (N.Y.), to put the screws to mavericks and to use the so-called “nuclear option” (requiring only a majority vote) to abolish the current three-fifths vote rule to end filibusters.

The impracticality of such hardball tactics is obvious on its face: Democrats would still need a 51-vote majority that includes the vice president, to prevail on anything given the 50-50 partisan split in the body. All they need is for one of their members to defect and control of the chamber flips to Republicans mid-stream. Majority Leader Schumer is not prone to wield the hammer; moreover, he knows how to count.

The recent, apparent breakdown in bipartisan negotiations over the infrastructure bill gives cause for liberals to crow, “See, we told you so. Now, let’s get back to our party’s agenda without the minority’s watered-down compromises.”

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Those supporting ongoing bipartisan outreach, on the other hand, at least have history on their side. According to recent studies by such respected political scientists as Frances Lee and James Curry, in their book, “The Limits of Party” (2020), most important legislative enactments, both over time and more recently, have been passed with substantial bipartisan support. Those bills that pass one house or the other on party-line votes are more likely to wind-up on the ash-heap of legislative history due to blockages down the road.

The question is often asked, “What do you want, an issue or a policy?” Parties love to run on their issues, especially when they don’t have a big bag of policy accomplishments to point to. Whether voters can distinguish between issues and policies is hard to gauge. If candidates are called out for their lack of real problem-solving successes, they respond, “There’s always next year. Reelect me.” Such excuses, however, wear thin as the number of unresolved policy challenges mounts.

All this certainly is not meant to excuse or encourage minority party Republicans who tend to oppose anything proposed by the majority, waiting in the weeds for Democrats to stumble. But that’s not how it is supposed to work in our non-parliamentary system; we do not have public votes of confidence over a unitary ruling party.

Our system was founded on the expectation that various factions would, through the process of deliberation, resolve their differences and act in the best interests of the nation. The Constitution’s hard-wired checks and balances and separated powers are why, as Lee and Curry explain, it will not produce the results that party government would, even though today’s hyper-polarized, partisan Congress is about as close as you can come.

All this brings us back to the majority party’s debate over which fork in the road to take. To avoid being a sideline kibitzer, I will come down squarely on the side of Yogi Berra and urge both parties to take the best road for the country.

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of, “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.”  The views expressed are solely his own.