Democrats Don’t Control the Senate

Another day, another disappointment for the party's legislative agenda.

POLITICO Congressional bureau chief Burgess Everett has discovered the “Senate Democrats’ imaginary majority.”

Every day, it seems, brings another reminder of the severe limitations of Democrats’ illusory majority in a 50-50 Senate.

First Democratic leaders tossed Covid relief from a Ukraine aid bill at the behest of Republicans who were threatening a filibuster. Then the party entertained giving the GOP a politically volatile vote on reversing the Biden administration’s border policy. And Wednesday showed there isn’t even a majority in the Senate for Democrats’ preferred abortion rights bill.

Not to mention that the party’s signature climate and tax reform bill hasn’t moved an inch in months after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) tanked the last iteration — still-rising inflation isn’t helping its revival. And though there’s a flurry of bipartisan discussions on issues from immigration to energy to electoral vote certification, none are showing signs of imminent breakthroughs.

“It’s a majority that comes and goes. Sort of like the tide,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). “I don’t know exactly what I expected, but I certainly expected a little bit more clarity.”

Now nearly 16 months and running, it’s by far the longest 50-50 Senate in history. And Democrats have had great success confirming President Joe Biden’s nominees, punctuated this week by installing a new FTC commissioner who gave Democrats the majority and the first Black woman on the Federal Reserve Board. But on a day-to-day basis, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s job is an excruciating grind based on whether any of his members have Covid, if Republicans are feeling cooperative and where a handful of Democrats stand.

This will hardly come as a surprise to OTB regulars. Indeed, the frustrations that Manchin and Sinema pose to their party’s leadership has been the topic of near-daily conversation since Democrats won the two Georgia runoffs.

Beyond that, while we often talk of a “Democratic-controlled” or “Republican-controlled” Senate out of habit, it’s seldom an accurate way of thinking of the situation. Even if one could count on every single member of the caucus going along with the agenda, most votes are subject to a filibuster, which means that, unless only has a 60-seat supermajority, the body operates only at the forebearance of the minority party.

Still, a bare majority is better than the alternative:

Senate Democrats can confirm nominees with a simple majority, which means getting all their members and Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie breaking vote. That’s given the caucus some of its biggest wins recently, including confirming Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court and filling out the Federal Reserve and the FTC.

But, even aside from the filibuster, the Democrats don’t actually have a majority on some of the more ambitious items on the agenda, ranging from climate change to abortion, because Manchin doesn’t support them.

Asked if it feels like Democrats are always in control of the chamber, Tester answered: “Oh God, no.” He said he can often find out more about the Senate’s cadence from Republicans, because it’s GOP demands that dictate much of the Senate’s rhythms on a weekly basis.

“I don’t feel bad about that. We’re chairing committees … helping set up the agenda. That’s the way it is,” Tester said. “But no, it’s tenuous at best.”

But, honestly, that’s what you’d expect with a 50-50 Senate.

FILED UNDER: Congress, US Politics, US Senate
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Scott says:

    Since the Senate really can’t accomplish anything substantive, then the objective is to make the other side feel pain on a daily basis. Democrats are not very good at doing that.

    What’s left is a lot of activity but no action.

    5
  2. Scott F. says:

    Democrats don‘t control the Senate, but importantly, Republicans control it even less. In such seditious times, that may have to be enough.

    4
  3. Liberal Capitalist says:

    @Scott F.:
    “Democrats don‘t control the Senate, but importantly, Republicans control it even less.”

    Do they? I think that Republicans are actually being more effective in their messaging to their base. Ultimately they can block most everything that the Dems put forward.

    As a result they are showing how powerful to the 40% of American voters that put the in place. Which, of course, keeps them in place.

    On top of that, they can then crow how the Dems fail at governing. (…and still take credit for the $$$ if any Dem bill does pass that benefits their district, even if they voted against it).

    Looks like a win-win-win for the GOP.

    3
  4. Gustopher says:

    If we can’t get anything done, we should at least be doing more fun performative votes — vote on things Republicans want but which are unpopular. A nation wide abortion, raising taxes on the poor so everyone has some “skin in the game”, etc.

    If we can get the Republicans to flee the building so they don’t have to take an unpopular stand, maybe we can pass a few things by voice vote when the last few Republicans are in the bathroom or something.

    6
  5. gVOR08 says:

    @Liberal Capitalist: It’s the concept of “drift”. The idea that those who are content with the status quo are OK with the government doing nothing. The GOP funders already got their big tax cut, can depend on the Court to gut regulation, and are sabotaging elections at the state level. The GOP voters are getting Roe repealed by the Court and are defeating grooming, masking, CRT, and elephants on my lawn at the state level.

    Both sides are equally unable to get anything much through the Senate. Ds want stuff, GOPs don’t.

    2
  6. MarkedMan says:

    It’s asymmetric. For a couple of decades now Democrats want to do things and Republicans want to prevent things from getting done. Comparisons of effectiveness are meaningless in this circumstance.

    1
  7. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    An open letter to Biden on this “general” topic.
    Apparently the author has several WH senior staff people who follow her on Twitter so there’s a fairly good chance it will get to Biden.
    I co-sign every word.
    https://newsletterwithecm.substack.com/p/dear-joe?s=w

  8. EddieInCA says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    Sorry, Darryl – While I agree with most of what Denise writes, the reality is that Joe can only do what the citizenry allows him to do. The GOP is doing what it’s doing because they are winning elections. Joe Biden isn’t a dictator. He can’t magically conjure up fixes for abortion, inflation, immigration, or the health care of trans kids. Joe is right. Democrats need to be better engaged. Democrats have to convince other Democrats to actually vote – rather than whine and complain.

    To me the letter comes across as whiny and pathetic – and I agree with most of her points. But there is no one person that will solve what ails the country – least of all Joe Biden.

    4
  9. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @EddieInCA:
    Biden is the leader of the country. But I think this letter goes out to every single Democrat in Washington. Biden, none of them FFS, knows how to fight. Democrats are pussies. They bring cupcakes to gunfights. They are not using the tools available to them. They are not acting with urgency. They are not ruthless. And they are failing. Whether it’s January 6th, or Roe, or any number of things.

  10. Scott says:

    I kind of agree with this:

    Schumer’s abortion vote botch job

    It could have been 52-48, or even 53-47, but yesterday Chuck Schumer couldn’t even get 50 votes for his doomed-to-fail performative vote on abortion.

    Of course, even with the extra votes, the measure would have fallen short of the 60 votes it needed for passage. But that was never the point of the show vote, which was supposed to be all about messaging. But Schumer managed to bungle even that.

    The other day my colleague Tim Miller previewed the Dem leader’s “strategy.”

    To the delight of Republican senators, Schumer plans to make Democratic senators vote on abortion legislation that is both unpopular—it would legalize abortions through all nine months of pregnancy, a position most Americans disapprove of—and hopeless, since it does not have the votes to pass.

    Here’s a tip: If you are going to force everyone to take a meaningless messaging vote for public-relations purposes, consider choosing a bill that hurts the other party’s popularity, not your own!

    To use a movie quote: Schumer has many gifts but he is not a wartime consigliere.

    2
  11. EddieInCA says:

    @Scott:

    It was idiotic, and a self-own.

    Again.

    2
  12. EddieInCA says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    @EddieInCA:
    Biden is the leader of the country. But I think this letter goes out to every single Democrat in Washington. Biden, none of them FFS, knows how to fight. Democrats are pussies. They bring cupcakes to gunfights. They are not using the tools available to them. They are not acting with urgency. They are not ruthless. And they are failing. Whether it’s January 6th, or Roe, or any number of things.

    Agree. To a point.

    But when was the last time a Democrat spoke about inflation in a way that connects with non-elites?

    When was the last time a Democrat spoke about crime?

    When was the last time a Democrat spoke about inflation in a way that connects with someone making less than $50K per year?

    When was the last time a Democrat spoke about immigration in a way that doesn’t come across as accusing all those for sane immigration policy a racist?

    Meanwhile, we’re all in on pronouns and student loan forgiveness.

    It’s like we don’t want to convince people, just badger them into submission.

    3
  13. Scott F. says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:
    You‘re talking messaging (again), while I‘m talking day to day governance. If you don‘t think it would be worse if Republicans were chairing committees or setting the agenda, you haven‘t been paying attention.

    I completely understand that “it could be worse” is very weak sauce when so much desperately needs to get done. But, contrary to what others have noted, the Republicans have moved on from wanting “to prevent things from getting done” to actively destroying things – things like voting rights and women’s autonomy. It doesn’t feel great, but controlling the damage ain’t nothin’.

    2
  14. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Democrats don’t control the Senate? I thought we’d already figured this out a few months into the administration when BBB crashed spectacularly. Must have been one of my fever dreams from last week. Somebody tell be Build Back Better is doing just fine so I know for sure what reality is–those fever dreams are really vivid!

  15. Mimai says:

    @EddieInCA:

    When was the last time a Democrat spoke about…

    At least when it comes to crime and inflation, pretty recently it seems.

    I don’t have a point I’m trying to make. Rather, you asked, I was curious, and google delivered.

    I didn’t look any further, as I am short on time and link allotment.

    1
  16. Jax says:

    @Mimai: @EddieInCA: That’s the thing….it doesn’t really matter how much they talk about it, or how good their plans or ideas are. If their words are played at all for conservative audiences, they’ll be selectively trimmed and cropped to fit “the narrative” that liberals are the Devil incarnate. Those who listen to conservative media rarely seek out differing viewpoints, they just go with what’s easily spoon-fed to them.

    Not that some liberals are any better. But I’d like to think we can at least see reality.

    1
  17. DK says:

    @EddieInCA:

    Meanwhile, we’re all in on pronouns and student loan forgiveness.

    The notion that Democratic politicians are more focused on pronouns than on fixing crime and immigration is just a flat out lie, blatantly false Fox News propaganda bs.

    The notion Democrats can win elections without acting on an issue of primacy importance to the youth voters on whom Democratic wins rely is out-of-touch Boomer elitism at its fine.

  18. Drew says:

    @DK:

    “The notion that Democratic politicians are more focused on pronouns than on fixing crime and immigration is just a flat out lie, blatantly false Fox News propaganda bs.”

    Thank you for the belly laugh.

    “The notion Democrats can win elections without acting on an issue of primacy importance to the youth voters on whom Democratic wins rely is out-of-touch Boomer elitism at its fine.”

    Sophomore?

  19. Dk says:

    @Drew:

    Thank you for the belly laugh.

    Thank you for the useless comment. Per usual.