House

Democrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold?

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Democrats will enter the next Congress with a slighter majority — and less cushion to absorb defections — as they eye an ambitious legislative agenda featuring a host of hot-button issues, from climate change to immigration.

Republicans have already flipped 11 seats this cycle, netting eight with several more expected, according to a tally by The New York Times. That leaves Democrats facing the prospect of controlling just 222 seats in the lower chamber next year — the smallest House majority in decades — and GOP leaders are practically salivating at the chance to block the Democrats’ legislative wish list just as President-elect Joe Biden steps into the White House.

“In this next Congress, we might not be able to schedule the floor, but we are going to run the floor,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said last week.

Yet an examination of the votes surrounding the Democrats’ top policy priorities in the current Congress reveals that Republicans have their work cut out if they hope to sink that agenda in the next. Indeed, of the nine highest-profile bills passed by Democrats — but not taken up by the Senate — over the past two years, seven won unanimous Democratic support, despite the differences in the caucus between the liberal and moderate wings, while the others saw just two defectors apiece.

Democrats, to be sure, will face a different political environment in the 117th Congress, one presenting new challenges for party leaders. Liberals, following Biden’s win, will be clamoring to shift legislation to the left, while vulnerable moderates may face more pressure to oppose some of the more controversial bills heading into a tough midterm cycle in 2022.

Still, the proposals Democrats tackled this year have broad public support, and party leaders are already vowing to return to those bills next year. If they can rally the same support they enjoyed this Congress, passage is assured, despite their diminished numbers.

“Much of what bills we passed I think we’ll look at them again,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters heading into the elections. “Because … it’s not as if they were defeated in the Senate. They were just ignored in the Senate.”  

Here’s a closer look at the Democrats’ top nine proposals from the 116th Congress, with an eye on their prospects in the 117th.

H.R. 1: Draining the swamp

Democrats had seized the House in 2018 largely on a promise to clean up Washington, and the first bill out the door aimed to do just that. Sponsored by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), the package featured dozens of proposals designed to limit the influence of money in politics, knock down barriers to voting and adopt tougher ethics rules for Washington policymakers.

Pelosi has said similar legislation will be the first to see action in the House next year, and she should have little trouble approving it.

The lower chamber passed the proposal in March 2019 by a vote of 234-193. No Democrat voted against it, including Rep. Jefferson Van Drew (N.J.), who has since jumped parties to join the Republicans.

H.R. 2: Infrastructure surge

Democrats had also run their 2018 campaign on vows to move an enormous infrastructure bill providing trillions of dollars for roads, airports and a shift from fossil fuels to green energy. Initially, they thought President Trump was an ally in the effort, but months of negotiations ultimately broke down, forcing Democrats to move a partisan bill through the House as a symbol of what they might enact under a President Biden, who is promising quick action on such a package next year.

Again, Pelosi should find little resistance. When the bill, sponsored by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), hit the floor over the summer, it passed 233-188.

There were two defections from Democratic moderates, Reps. Collin Peterson (Minn.) and Ben McAdams (Utah), both of whom lost their races this month and won’t be returning in the next Congress. Three Republicans crossed the aisle to support the legislation: Reps. Chris Smith (N.J.), Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.) and Van Drew, all of whom will be back in Washington next year.

H.R. 3: Drug costs

The third and final central promise from Democrats to voters in 2018 was legislation to lower prescription drug costs by allowing Medicare to use its bulk-buying powers to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies — a process Republicans explicitly barred in the 2003 law creating Medicare’s drug program.

That promise was back on the table this campaign season, and Democratic leaders are vowing to move quickly to send it to the Senate next year. Their smaller majority appears to be no impediment to that goal.

The bill, sponsored by the late Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), passed the House in December by a vote of 230-192. No Democrats opposed the legislation, and two Republicans backed the measure: Reps. Fitzpatrick and Jaime Herrera Beutler (Wash.), both of whom will be back on Capitol Hill next year. Van Drew, then a Democrat, also supported the bill.

H.R. 4: Voting rights

Democrats howled in 2013 when the Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, eliminating a provision that had required states with proven records of voter discrimination to win federal approval before altering their election procedures. Sponsored by Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), H.R. 4 aimed to reinstate those preclearance protections by updating the formula that had determined which states were subject to the extra scrutiny.

Championed by the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon who died in July, the bill sailed through the House in December by a vote of 228-187, with no Democrat opposing it, including Van Drew. Fitzpatrick was the lone Republican to support the measure.

H.R. 5: Gay rights

Democrats were emboldened by the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision solidifying the right of gay couples to marry. But in their eyes, it didn’t go far enough, and H.R. 5 was their remedy: a sweeping proposal to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity across vast sectors of U.S. culture, including the workplace, educational institutions and the banking industry.

Sponsored by Rep. David Cicilline (R.I.), a gay lawmaker who heads the Democrats’ messaging arm, the bill passed easily in May 2019. The vote was 239-173, with every voting Democrat supporting the measure, including Van Drew. They were joined by eight Republicans, five of whom are returning next year.

H.R. 6: The “Dreamers”

Among their final lame-duck votes after losing the House majority in the 2010 elections, Democrats passed the DREAM Act, which would have provided certain legal protections for qualified undocumented immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.

The measure was controversial at the time: 38 Democrats voted against it. A decade later, the legislation has evolved to cover more people — and the controversy among Democrats has all but vanished.

Sponsored by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), the bill hit the floor in June 2019 and flew through the chamber on a vote of 237-187, with all Democrats supporting it, including Van Drew. Seven Republicans crossed the aisle in favor of the measure; six of them will be on Capitol Hill again next year.

H.R. 7: Paycheck fairness

As part of their economic agenda, Democrats have sought to bridge the stubborn chasm in wages between men and women with legislation promoted under the slogan “equal pay for equal work.”

Central to the effort is a proposal sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) — the Paycheck Fairness Act — that would discourage pay discrimination by empowering workers to share more wage information and providing women with more tools to challenge gender-based wage discrepancies.

The idea, among Democrats, is hardly controversial. DeLauro’s bill was among the first to be considered this cycle, in March of last year, and passed with a vote of 242-187. No Democrat opposed it, and Van Drew was among the supporters. In addition, seven Republicans backed the measure, six of them returning in the next Congress.

H.R. 8: Gun reform

Once considered a third rail of politics, particularly for Democrats, gun reform has gained widespread support in public opinion polls, fueled by a long string of high-profile shootings that have struck schools, churches, malls, concerts and military bases across the country in recent years.

The Democrats have numerous bills designed to stem the violence, but their base proposal would expand background checks surrounding gun purchase to a broader swath of sellers — licensed and unlicensed — in an effort to block sales to felons and other prohibited buyers.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), hit the floor in February 2019, passing 240-190. Two Democrats voted no: Peterson, who is not returning to Washington, and Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine), who won reelection. Eight Republicans also backed the bill.

H.R. 9: Climate Change

Among the top priorities of both congressional Democrats and the Biden team is sweeping legislation to tackle climate change, largely with an effort to cut greenhouse emissions through a shift to green energies.

Republicans have largely opposed such changes, warning that a slew of new environmental regulations would harm businesses large and small. Yet the idea has been embraced by Democrats of all stripes who point to public opinion polls in favor of some federal action to curb warming amid intensifying hurricanes in the South and wildfires in the West.

Sponsored by Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), the Democrats’ climate bill passed the House easily in May 2019, winning a vote of 231-190, with no Democratic opposition. Van Drew was among the Democrats to support the measure, and three GOP lawmakers also voted in favor: Fitzpatrick, Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.) and Rep. Vern Buchanan (Fla.).  

Tags Brian Fitzpatrick Chris Smith Collin Peterson David Cicilline Donald Trump Elijah Cummings Elise Stefanik Jaime Herrera Beutler Jeff Van Drew Joe Biden John Lewis John Sarbanes Kathy Castor Kevin McCarthy Lucille Roybal-Allard Mike Thompson Nancy Pelosi Peter DeFazio Rosa DeLauro Steny Hoyer Terri Sewell Vern Buchanan

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