Senate buzzsaw awaits 2020 progressive proposals

Senate buzzsaw awaits 2020 progressive proposals
© Greg Nash

The Senate is emerging as a significant roadblock for progressive policies being championed by 2020 presidential candidates, even if Democrats win the White House next year.

As Democrats propose massive political and policy overhauls, the GOP-controlled Senate is quickly becoming a legislative buzzsaw to block progressives’ top priorities like the Green New Deal, “Medicare for All” and expanding the Supreme Court.

“The Senate is absolutely crucial. It’s not enough to, you know, elect an inspiring president, we’ve got to also elect an inspiring Senate,” said Ezra Levin, co-executive director of Indivisible, a progressive activist group.


Jim Manley, who was an aide to former Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidWho is the Senate parliamentarian and why is she important? Trumpists' assaults on Republicans who refuse to drink the Kool-Aid will help Democrats The Jan. 6 case for ending the Senate filibuster MORE (D-Nev.), said the “reality is that under the current makeup of the Senate, and as far as I can tell for the next couple of years, it will be very difficult to get most, if not all, of this wish list through the Senate.”

Even if they manage to capture the White House, the potential headaches awaiting progressives in the Senate are two-fold: If Democrats are able to win back the majority, they’ll face the herculean task of getting 60 votes for priority legislation or will need to nix the filibuster. If Republicans keep control of the chamber, they are pledging to block progressive ideas, many of which they characterize as “socialism.”

Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTanden withdraws nomination as Biden budget chief Boehner book jacket teases slams against Cruz, Trump Gun violence prevention groups optimistic background check legislation can pass this Congress MORE (R-Ky.), who is up for reelection next year, recently touted himself as the “Grim Reaper” when it comes to liberal legislation.

“None of that stuff is going to pass,” McConnell said during a speech this week in Kentucky. “I guarantee you that if I’m the last man standing and I’m still the majority leader, it ain’t happening.”

McConnell has repeatedly said that one of the biggest perks of being majority leader is deciding what does, and does not, come to the Senate floor for a vote.

Democrats and activists are still fuming over McConnell’s decision to block Judge Merrick GarlandMerrick Brian GarlandMurkowski never told White House she would oppose Tanden Judiciary Committee greenlights Garland's AG nomination Watch live: Senate panel votes on Biden's attorney general nominee MORE, former President Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee, from getting a confirmation hearing or a vote in 2016 — an announcement the majority leader made hours after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death and without consulting his caucus. And dozens of bills passed by House Democrats this year, addressing issues like gun violence and voting rights, are expected to languish in the Senate.

Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerA Biden stumble on China? First Black secretary of Senate sworn in Republican Ohio Senate candidate calls on GOP rep to resign over impeachment vote MORE (D-N.Y.), who has compared the Senate to a “legislative graveyard,” warned that McConnell would not give an inch to Democrats if they win the White House in 2020 and if Republicans maintain control of the Senate.


“If we do not have the Senate two very bad things will happen: One, Mitch McConnell will block everything that the new Democratic president tries to do, just as he did once he got the majority under President Obama, nothing happened,” he told New York radio station WAMC during a recent interview.

He added that Republicans could “block any presidential appointment to the Supreme Court, my guess is for one year, two years,” making it “vital” to win back control of the upper chamber.

Republicans relish the idea of being a defense against progressive policies, characterizing themselves as a “firewall” against House Democrats.

The dynamic would immediately quash major progressive proposals being touted by Democrats’ wide-ranging 2020 field from having a chance of getting signed into law, even if Democrats control both the House and White House starting in 2021.

“The Senate under Mitch McConnell’s watch is the place where progressive ideas go to die,” Levin said.

Manley added that the onus would likely shift to Democrats to search out compromise, which could be scarce given the current lack of major bipartisan proposals moving between the Democratic House and Republican Senate.

“I would expect very little, if any, cooperation out of Sen. McConnell if Republicans were to keep the Senate. I think the real question is going to be how much or whether House Democrats are going to be willing to compromise … to get things out of the Senate,” he said.

Democrats have pick-up opportunities in the 2020 election — Republicans will be defending 22 seats compared to a dozen for Democrats — but could face a difficult path to winning back control of the chamber.

If the eventual Democratic nominee defeats Trump, the party would still need to flip three GOP seats and hold onto Democratic Sen. Doug Jones’s seat in Alabama, which is expected to be a fierce fight, in order to have a 50-50 split. If they lose Alabama, they would need to flip four seats to get a 50-50 split or five seats to gain outright control.

Levin predicted that McConnell would try to use the Senate’s rules to be a “Grim Reaper” even if Republicans lose their majority, pointing to his pledge to make Obama a one-term president.

“The real question is: Will Democrats allow him to do that?” he asked.

Though Democrats would be able to confirm nominees without help from Republicans, they would likely need several GOP votes to defeat a 60-vote filibuster and ultimately pass legislation. That would leave major progressive proposals in limbo unless Democrats could fit them in under the tight scope of reconciliation, budget rules that allow senators to avoid a filibuster on certain measures.

“The question then becomes whether McConnell is willing to cut any deals to get the 60 votes necessary to get anything out of the Senate, assuming the filibuster survives,” Manley said.

Democrats are in the middle of an intraparty debate over whether to keep the 60-vote legislative filibuster if they take back the chamber next year. Progressives argue the higher threshold effectively kills any chance of passing significant legislation because it would require GOP support.

Schumer, speaking to reporters shortly before the current recess, sidestepped questions about whether he supported getting rid of the filibuster, saying instead the focus should be on taking back the majority.

“We’ll have a nice caucus of more than 50 Democrats, and we will decide what to do,” he said.

Manley, who has not taken a position on the filibuster issue, predicted that Senate Democrats are “going to have a real come-to-Jesus moment about what to do” on the filibuster if they win the majority.

Dozens of Democrats signed a letter in 2017 to keep the legislative filibuster. But they would face intense pressure from activists, and potentially their own colleagues, to use the “nuclear option” to change the rules if they hold a slim majority after 2020.

Levin, whose group is advocating for nixing the filibuster, questioned if Democrats would “actually use the power available to them.”

“Prepare to eliminate the filibuster,” he said. “Or prepare to do nothing and then lose in 2022.”