Democratic majority shrinks, but finds unity
House Democrats have been largely unified in the opening weeks of the new Congress, suffering few defections at a time when their slimmed-down majorities make it crucial their party stays together.
Things can always change as tougher caucus battles form over policy matters, and as Republicans seek to put vulnerable centrists in tough spots.
But so far, the Democratic majority in the House is holding, with only one Democrat voting against the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package this week.
Democrats point to a range of factors.
The party watered down rules for motions to recommit, making it more difficult for Republicans to win on the measures designed to embarrass the majority. During the last session, several GOP motions to recommit were successful, but they have been falling short lately.
The party also acknowledges the tight majority just means it can’t afford more than a few defections on anything anymore.
“It clearly makes a difference that we know we don’t have any votes to spare,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (Mich.), House Democrats’ chief deputy whip.
House Democrats hold 220 seats to the GOP’s 211, with four vacancies.
They lost one member this past week after now-former Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) was confirmed by the Senate on Wednesday to serve as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Their numbers will shrink even further once the Senate votes to confirm Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) as Interior secretary, something that is expected to take place Monday.
That means Democrats will only be able to afford up to three defections and still pass legislation on their own while those vacancies remain unfilled.
There’s also a recognition that they aren’t likely to draw much in the way of GOP backing on most bills, particularly with tensions still lingering after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a mob of former President Trump’s supporters.
It’s a shift in strategy from two years ago, when centrists got conflicting advice from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who urged Democrats to stay united on procedural votes, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.), who suggested that members should vote their districts.
“We have a smaller majority and everybody understands that we’re all in this together. And that we have a common enemy, which happens to include people who provide aid and comfort to a violent insurrection,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.).
House Republicans succeeded eight times in the last session of Congress in getting bills altered at the last minute on the floor with motions to recommit.
In those votes, Republicans crafted motions designed for attack ads if vulnerable Democrats representing swing districts voted against them.
During consideration in 2019 of Democrats’ marquee bill to require universal background checks for gun purchases, for example, Republicans offered a motion to require Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to be notified if an undocumented immigrant tried to buy a gun. A total of 26 Democrats voted for that GOP motion, which ensured its surprise adoption and angered other members of the Democratic caucus.
Other Republican motions to recommit that were adopted in the last Congress included a measure condemning anti-Semitism as part of a Yemen war powers resolution — which later caused Senate procedural problems — and prohibiting funds in Democrats’ infrastructure bill from going to entities responsible for building forced labor camps targeting Uyghur Muslims.
But Democrats implemented changes to the motion to recommit at the start of the new session in January so that its adoption would send bills back to committee instead of allowing them to be amended ahead of the final passage vote.
Democrats argue that a vote for a motion to recommit is now effectively a move to stall its passage rather than a substantive amendment.
As a result, none of the GOP motions to recommit this year have secured a single Democratic vote.
That’s even after the GOP offered a similar motion to recommit — albeit with less impact than before — to Democrats’ universal background checks bill this week regarding notifying ICE. This time, it failed entirely along party lines on Thursday.
Republicans are nevertheless still trying to use their procedural efforts against Democrats.
“Well, guess what? The Democrats voted against that, so they think it’s okay for someone illegally in America to get a gun, but they don’t want you to be able to get a gun,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show after Thursday’s vote.
Kildee said that “there was an increasing awareness that the [motion to recommit] essentially had devolved into a political campaign tool that really shouldn’t be part of our process,” which prompted the rules change.
Democratic leaders mindful that they have little room for error are also under more pressure to ensure that any bill must have buy-in from the centrist and progressive factions before scheduling it for a vote.
“It forces a more honest conversation about what we can bring to the floor knowing that we’re going have to have 218 out of a number only a few more than that,” Kildee said. “We have to really work through some of the differences we have within our own caucus before taking legislation to the floor.”
That dynamic played out with the COVID-19 relief package this week. The House passed its initial version of the bill earlier this month with just two centrist defections. But on Wednesday, Democratic leaders got that down to just one — Rep. Jared Golden (Maine) — after Rep. Kurt Schrader (Ore.) got on board with changes pushed by moderate Democratic senators to scale back the stimulus checks and unemployment insurance payments that stopped short of alienating progressives.
“I know there’s a narrative out there that Democrats are in disarray — and nowhere else in Washington could a 269 to 2 vote be considered a party in disarray, if you add the Senate and House together,” said House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.).
“But we have come together as a party in the Congress to do something monumental.”
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