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Monday, November 04, 2019

The Presidency Is Not Enough

And without reform, neither is a Democratic Senate.

Jamelle Bouie

Opinion columnist

President Franklin Roosevelt addresses the 74th Congress in January, 1935.
CreditHarris & Ewing, via Library of Congress
There are still more than a dozen candidates jockeying for the Democratic presidential nomination. Some are running on big, ambitious platforms for change, like the Medicare-for-All plans pushed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Others are selling “pragmatism,” with more modest ideas meant to win consensus — and which are often quite liberal by historical standards. But nearly everyone on the board faces the same, fundamental problem: They want to go further than where Congress, and the Senate in particular, will want to move, even if it has a Democratic majority.

Right now, the Senate Democratic caucus is 47 members strong — 45 Democrats and two independents. Twelve are up for re-election. If Democrats somehow sweep the field next year — if they save every incumbent, win every tossup and flip every seat that only leans Republican, they’ll have a 54-member majority. In this hypothetical majority, at least three members — Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana and Doug Jones of Alabama — will come from conservative, pro-Trump states. And there will be new members from competitive, Republican-leaning states like Iowa, Arizona and Georgia.

A Democratic president might have 46 liberal-to-left-wing votes for her agenda. Even without the filibuster, this agenda would rest with relatively conservative Democrats like Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Sinema, Politico reports, has distanced herself from her liberal colleagues, won’t commit to supporting the Democratic nominee for president, backs the supermajority requirement for legislation — otherwise known as the legislative filibuster — and hopes to restore the supermajority requirement for judicial and executive branch nominations.

In this best-case scenario, the next Democratic president will have to work with a Senate that has bound itself by rules that preclude party-line legislation. That president might be able to build a workaround — Senator Sanders has proposed passing a Medicare-for-All bill through the budget reconciliation process, which requires only a simple majority, but he would still have to deal with a caucus whose pivotal votes are well to the right of the White House. For anything else — like immigration reform or climate legislation — he’d have to win six or seven conservative Republican votes. If this wasn’t possible in 2009, in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, then it’s ludicrous to think it will happen at any point in the near future.

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