Democratic Senate emerges as possible hurdle for progressives 

Greg Nash

A Democratic-controlled Senate is looming as a potential roadblock for the party’s base if it wins the majority in November.

Progressives are urging their party to go big if it is in power next year with a trifecta, arguing that four years under President Trump and six years of a GOP-controlled Senate have illustrated the need for broad systemic reforms.

But Democrats, if they win, are predicting they will have a slim margin fueled in part by victories in red and purple states that would boost the chamber’s fledgling moderate faction, putting a spotlight on the gap between the ideas being discussed by activists and the likely size and political makeup of the caucus come January.  

“I think there is a disconnect to some extent. But my heart is with the progressive side. I want to achieve as much we can. I’m realistic and realize we can’t achieve everything,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, when asked about the ideas being discussed among progressive activists and where the caucus is likely to be in January.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the party’s progressive wing, acknowledged that there would likely be conflicting views within the caucus, even if the party is in the majority next year. 

“It’s always hard, especially in a diverse caucus like ours … to keep everybody on the same page,” Murphy said. “We’re a boisterous caucus with lots of different opinions in the minority, and we’ll be the same way in the majority.” 

The likelihood of a fierce public fight next year comes as progressives have largely held their fire against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, an institutionalist who came up in the centrist wing of the party, uniting behind him as they’ve sought to defeat Trump.

But they are pledging to push hard for their top priorities, including democracy reform and “Medicare for All,” if Democrats control both chambers in Congress and Biden wins the White House and are warning that they, and their supporters, are ready to apply pressure after the election.

“There is no excuse for inaction or a failure to deliver by this Senate if we have all three branches of government,” said Charles Chamberlain, the chairman of Democracy for America.

Mary Small, the legislative director of Indivisible, added that the Senate should “fully wield the power that voters have given them, and that means being pretty bold and ambitious,” including taking up the House-passed democracy reform package, voting rights and D.C. statehood. 

“The caucus will have to struggle. … There’s wings of the party in the Senate, and there’s going to have to be negotiations and discussions there. This is where the clear role for the outside groups, but also constituents, comes in to try to direct and influence the shape of those negotiations,” Small said.

One of the first battles Senate Democrats will need to work out is if they nix the 60-vote legislative filibuster, with opponents of the procedural tool warning it could scuttle their chances of passing top priorities such as health care, voting rights and even coronavirus relief. 

A growing number of Democratic senators have appeared open to nixing the filibuster, though it’s unclear if they’ll have the votes to do so with a small majority. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who will become majority leader if Democrats win the Senate, has vowed that “nothing is off the table” as he tries to keep his caucus united ahead of Nov. 3.

Progressives are keeping a close eye on Schumer, who is up for reelection in 2022. 

“I think that the entire movement and the entire country is going to be interested in making sure Chuck Schumer delivers or that he gets primaried,” Chamberlain added.

But even if Democrats defang the filibuster, it’s far from clear that some of the biggest ideas being discussed in the Democratic Party, including expanding the Supreme Court, “Medicare for All,” the Green New Deal and D.C. statehood, would have the 50 votes needed to ultimately pass.

“I can pretty much guarantee that some of what they’re asking for is never going to happen, for a variety of different reasons, especially that for a lot of them the votes aren’t there in the Senate,” said Jim Manley, a top aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). 

“What some of these groups don’t understand is if you eliminate the filibuster, there’s still not going to be the majority votes necessary for some things like the Green New Deal, for instance, because there’s going to be a whole bunch of Democrats who aren’t willing to go down that path. … It’s a brutal truth,” Manley added.

Complicating the calculations for progressives is that the Senate math could give them little room for error if Democrats find themselves in the majority but with their seats capped in the low 50s.

FiveThirtyEight casts the most likely outcome of the Senate battle as Democrats holding a 51-49 majority, a razor-thin margin that would give little leeway in big policy and political battles that deeply divide the caucus.

That could also, in a filibusterless world, give a lot of sway to just a small number of senators about where the caucus goes even if the party controls both chambers of Congress and the White House. 

The caucus has members from red and purple states, including Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), and those viewed as more institutionalist-minded, including Angus King (I-Maine) and Chris Coons (D-Del.). And candidates in states such as Arizona and North Carolina, who Democrats need to win in order to regain the majority, are viewed as more moderate. 

Manchin, for example, is expected to be the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Asked how he views his role next year, as one of the chamber’s few moderates, Manchin replied, “Everybody needs balance. It’s a balance.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) floated that Democrats could first focus on areas where there is clear agreement such as voting rights and coronavirus relief.

“There are areas where there’s just rock-solid agreement. Then there’s others where we want to do something but we haven’t yet figured it all out. … There’s enough priorities on the table that we’re not going to have a hard time coming up with things,” Kaine said.

But Durbin, while appearing hopeful that more moderates could be joining the caucus, acknowledged that it would be a “real challenge” to balance the competing factions. 

“Usually within your ranks are people who see things different politically,” Durbin said. “Some are more careful, more moderate, more defensive. Others, you know, are ready to hear what the program is and help. So you got to take that into consideration. It isn’t just a matter of simple numbers.” 

Tags Angus King Charles Schumer Chris Coons Chris Murphy Chuck Schumer Court packing Dick Durbin Donald Trump Filibuster Harry Reid Joe Biden Joe Manchin Jon Tester Kyrsten Sinema progressives Tim Kaine

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