Finding Those Senate Votes

Terry H. Schwadron

Mar. 3, 2021

We’re awash in reminders that Donald Trump and Republicans lost the elections in November, giving way to Joe Biden and tight Democratic majorities in the House and Senate — despite Trump’s dangerous, continuing insistence that he won.

But daily, we face the sad reality that with a Senate requirement for 60 votes to enact any bill to pass, it is a Democratic agenda that already is losing. It’s another in a long list of irritants about why Washington serves itself and not the rest of us, raising questions about why and how elections do matter.

While the Senate wrestles to squeeze the coronavirus aid package through the arcane rules of “budget reconciliation,” an important line-up of bills to address comprehensive immigration change, voting rights, climate and environmental issues, infrastructure projects, tax fairness, student debt reductions and possible changes to policing and criminal justice look at this moment to be hanging tantalizingly just outside the strike zone.

As we saw this week, it was the rules that killed an attempt to raise the federal minimum wage. Changing the rules to eliminate the 60-vote requirement by majority vote and make it possible for a majority of senators — and the vice president — to decide an issue in a 50–50 Senate is not going to happen. And you can blame Democrats themselves for that.

Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-WVa., told us again on Monday that will “never” change on his watch. “Never!” he shouted at a journalist who asked whether setbacks to the Democratic agenda might lead him to reconsider., “Jesus Christ, what don’t you understand about ‘never’?”

Manchin has support in this from Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, who also opposes the change that is being promoted by more progressive members of the caucus to finally address some of the bills on which the previous Republican majority had not even allowed a vote.

New Gridlock

We’re quickly arriving at this year’s version of gridlock, less than two months into the new administration. It is nearly impossible to imaging getting a consistent group of 10 Republicans to join Democrats to do anything.

The only winner is the Senate rulebook, and adherence to a storied past of glorious oratory and backroom persuasion about the direction of the country and backroom persuasion, a vision that itself is rebuffed by the made-for-tv pop-ups in which it is perfectly reasonable to make up facts, float MAGA mottoes and to ignore the realities of actual social problems.

Even Biden seems to want that more than a power-driver approach to ram through his ideas. But that Senate glory day is gone or missing, replaced by straight power-politics. But only one side is playing.

The vast number of Republicans in both houses are in auto-pilot opposition mode; whatever honeymoon Biden may have thought he or the country was owed seems over, and we’re into the slog again.

As speakers at the conservative CPAC conference and innumerable television interviews underscore, Republican eyes are already fixated on the next elections 18 months off, this time arming with more than 200 proposed state laws to restrict voting, to return their party as Congressional majorities.

The Biden agenda, the Democratic agenda, any hint of a progressive agenda, is already in trouble of losing serious momentum.

The noise of the clash over cultural differences is far outweighing any rational sense of problem-solving over health, Republicans insist on defining bipartisanship to mean that they write the bills that Biden proposes and name Cabinet officers to serve in Biden’s administration. The name-calling and finger-jabbing are all just byplays.

No Threat

Democrats say they are eager to deliver memorable legislative victories, and to do so before the midterm elections, which historically favor the party on the outs. The problem is that by having eliminated the possibility of eliminating the filibuster, the 60-vote requirement, there is nothing to threaten Republican obstinance.

Even if a Republican moderate were open to joining a Democratic majority on a single bill, there is no incentive to do so. Instead, we’re seeing the same kind of what-about-me attitude from the most likely suspects as we are from Manchin himself, who wants to dictate the terms of moderating Biden’s proposals to suit his personal outlook.

Without some steel in that velvet negotiation glove, Biden has little to gain in literal bipartisan approaches to big problems. He can only gain votes around the narrow edges, which is what Republicans want anyway.

The results will either be to water down the reach of legislation or to drop proposals altogether. You get legislation that favors small business owners that way, but not as much support for re-envisioning a greener society that is addressing poverty, health care and income inequality. The biggest problems we face with race, education, immigration and climate, among other things, will go unaddressed.

Dilution of legislation always eases up on regulation of corporations, redoubles support of status quo, and only serves wealthier classes, who, in turn, keep campaign donations going for both parties.

If you want any of what the Biden agenda calls for, we either need a Senate of more than 60 Democrats, which isn’t going to happen, or to end this non-Constitutional Senate rule.


Journalist, musician, community volunteer