Even by their own standards, Democrats are frantic this week.
A monthslong effort to jam voting rights legislation through Congress is reaching a head in the Senate, where Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is pushing to change filibuster rules to circumvent a Republican blockade. President Joe Biden, under pressure from voting rights groups, traveled to Georgia to deliver an aggressive speech endorsing those changes, or whatever else was necessary to get a voting rights bill through. (Some groups demanding the legislation actually boycotted the speech to make the point that the time for words, instead of action, is over.)
But it looks to be of no avail. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema on Thursday gave a floor speech reiterating her firm opposition to weakening the filibuster, and Sen. Joe Manchin followed up later that afternoon with his own statement ruling out such a move too.
All of this is to say: This week’s spectacle from Democratic leaders is just that, an effort from party leaders to show it exhausted every effort on voting rights. The anxiety of the moment is compounded by the fact that this might be the end of the line not just on voting rights, but on the Democratic agenda as well—and for a long time.
When Democrats took control of the House, Senate, and White House around this time last year, it was the first time they’d held such a trifecta since 2010. There was much to do.
Democrats, despite the very thin majorities they held in Congress, wanted to act on what Schumer repeatedly called a “big, bold” agenda. It would begin with COVID relief and branch out to include child care, infrastructure, climate change, voting rights, elections reform, labor rights, immigration reform, gun control, police reform, and everything else that had accrued on their wish list over the previous decade. These windows for opportunity come rarely, and often shut quickly. And though Democrats were able to pass major COVID relief and infrastructure bills in 2021, they’ve since sputtered on other big-ticket items.
Now they’re running out of both time and agenda items that have a chance of going anywhere.
The first constraint Democrats are up against is the calendar. Conventional wisdom holds that even-numbered years—i.e., election years—aren’t fruitful times for legislation, as parties are more concerned with honing their campaign messaging than risking getting their hands dirty through the legislative process. But it’s useful to think less about their fear of the upcoming year and more about what they’ve spent energy on during the previous year. Governing parties tend to run out of gas.
“We know that presidents have the most political capital typically that they will have over the course of their term right at inauguration,” Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University, told me. “It’s fair to say it gets spent down pretty quickly over the first year.”
Problems that weren’t around at the beginning of the term, like inflation, meanwhile, arise and disrupt governing parties’ best-laid plans. “The bottom line is that the window does close,” Binder said, “because often, events conspire against them.”
It’s not that majorities don’t ever get major things done in a second year, though. The Dodd-Frank banking reform law, a major piece of legislation, passed in the summer of 2010 during the second year of Obama’s presidency. And who could forget when then–Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell jammed Brett Kavanaugh through a fraught Supreme Court confirmation a month before the 2018 midterms? And in both cases, the writing was already on the wall ahead of the midterms: The president’s party was going to get “slaughtered,” as Josh Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Government Affairs Institute put it to me.
“The last few congresses have shown that Congress has remained sort of grinding the wheel, even on major party priorities, despite the fact that they’re looking at election losses in the midterm.” Perhaps even because of that fact. If you know you’re probably going to lose power soon, you’d better push through what you can.
But that brings in the second constraint Democrats are facing: Even if they decided to go for broke ahead of a midterm election in which they’re facing a likely loss of at least one chamber of Congress, what do they have left to try?
Consider what’s already fallen by the wayside. Bipartisan talks on immigration reform, police reform, and expanded gun background checks sputtered out in the Senate last year. The continued existence of the filibuster precludes major party-line action on these items or on the PRO Act, Democrats’ labor rights bill. There will be plenty of commotion around reviving the Build Back Better Act, in which Democrats tried to stuff all of their non-filibuster-able social spending and climate change agenda, but it’s not showing any signs of life just yet.
Even if Democrats summoned all of the willpower they have to ignore typical election-year concerns against legislating ambitious bills, they might be out of ambitious bills. In that case, they would turn to normal must-pass bills, like those to fund the government, to see what small pieces of their agenda they can tack onto it here or there.
Maybe they cut a deal with Republicans to reform the Electoral Count Act. Maybe they don’t.
If this is the end of the line, we could see the Senate revert soon to what Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy called the Senate in April 2019: “a very expensive lunch club.”
“Three times a week the Senate Republicans meet for lunch. … And occasionally they walk into that chamber and take a vote or two or three on judges,” Murphy told reporters at the time. “That is the sum total of the Senate’s work today. Mitch McConnell has effectively turned the United States Senate into a very expensive lunch club.”
Democrats wanted to change this when they took power. They wanted to return the Senate to an active legislative body, taking on big challenges, and there were intermittent periods in 2021 when they did. If the filibuster remains unchanged, voting rights runs into a wall for a last time, and BBB can’t be revived in any meaningful form, they’re staring at another indefinite sentence to the lunch club, poking at shrimp salad while the problems they weren’t able to address fail to address themselves. You’d be frantic, too.