Democratic agenda stalls in Congress despite majority control
Democrats hold levers of power in the White House and Congress but see most of their agenda blocked in the Senate.
Democrats who control the US House of Representatives are pushing through progressive legislation only to see their proposals repeatedly stall in the Senate. Why?
In 2020, Democrats won command of the levers of power in Washington for the first time in 12 years, and yet their political agenda is largely stymied. It is a contradictory state of affairs.
Legislation on gun control, voting rights, increasing the minimum wage, and police reform have sailed through the House. But getting those measures to the desk of new Democratic President Joe Biden will be tough.
Each of those bills touches a flashpoint in American politics and motivates the Democrats base of progressive voters cheered by Biden’s 2020 win.
But the bills stand little chance in the US Senate, where Democrats and Republicans are divided 50-50 and it takes 60 votes to move most legislation.
“It is going to be exceedingly difficult to get anything done,” said James Thurber, a professor of politics at the American University.
In the House, where Democrats hold a narrow 219-211 majority, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has set a rapid-fire pace of legislative production.
“There is a great motivation not only by the far left, but by the Democratic Party generally, to get more done,” Thurber told Al Jazeera. “Pelosi and the Democratic caucus are going for broke.”
House Democratic bills passed
On March 3, the House passed a police reform bill named for George Floyd, the Black man whose death last year while being arrested in Minneapolis sparked nationwide and global protests.
The bill, enthusiastically supported by progressives, was drafted by the Congressional Black Caucus and passed largely along party lines, 220-212. Its prospects in the Senate are virtually nil.
On March 4, the House passed a sweeping bill that would revise US campaign finance laws, establish standards for federal elections held every two years, and tighten government ethics rules. It passed the House by a vote of 220-210. Every Republican voted against it.
The bill’s voting provisions would block efforts by Republicans in state legislatures to tighten voting restrictions Biden has called “despicable” and “un-American”.
On March 11, the House passed two bills to expand the use of background checks in gun sales. The bills are designed to close gaps in federal law that allow some transactions to occur without a review of the buyers’ criminal record.
One bill passed the House 227-203 with support from eight Republicans and the second passed 219-210 with support from only two Republicans. Both will get caught up in a newly polarised US gun debate following the shootings in Colorado and Georgia.
Immigration reform legislation is part of a Democratic agenda that will pass the House but stall in the Senate. The only way much of it will get through would be if Democrats unilaterally change decades of Senate tradition to require only 51 votes. That could generate a backlash.
“It’s not all sweetness and light when a majority party gets things through solely on the basis of a majority vote,” said Matt Dickinson, a political science professor at Middlebury College in Vermont.
By advancing progressive legislation popular with its voters, the Democratic Party risks being painted by opposition Republicans as extremist and out of touch with mainstream Americans.
Already, Pelosi and Democrats face the prospect of losing House seats in the 2022 midterm elections.
“There are very few things in life that are certain when it comes to politics, but one of them is that the President’s party loses seats in the first midterm. There are exceptions, but those exceptions are rare,” Dickinson told Al Jazeera.
In 2010, after President Barack Obama won passage of the Affordable Care Act, Democrats lost 63 seats and control of the House to Republicans.
The party that holds the White House has picked up seats in the House only three times since the US Civil War. It happened last in 2002.
To be sure, much depends on the pandemic, how the US pulls out of it and whether the economy comes roaring back.
Biden and his Democratic allies in Congress scored a victory with the enactment of a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package that passed under expedited rules requiring only 51 votes in the Senate.
“The president knows and others know that they have to brag about a little bit with the stimulus package,” Thurber said.
COVID-19 relief is viewed by voters as nonpartisan and public polls showed broad support from large majorities of both Democrats and Republicans.
There will be another economic boost in the form of a massive infrastructure and jobs bill worth as much as $3 trillion. Biden plans to travel to Pittsburgh on March 31 to lay out the details of the plan.
And it is here that Democrats and Republicans may be able to find common ground.
“The Democrats may be able to pick off some Republican votes,” Dickinson said.