Vote Study Shows Obama Gets His Way in GOP-Controlled Senate

Posted April 20, 2015 at 2:57pm

Republicans took the Senate in 2014 by stressing the data that CQ Roll Call’s presidential support vote study revealed: Democrats in red states were sticking close to President Barack Obama. So here’s a surprise: the new GOP majority in 2015 is voting Obama’s way as often as they ever have.

Sure, it’s early. But at this point, few expected Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to be as accommodating as he has been. CQ Vote Watch, a new tool that offers daily reports on voting patterns, shows that Obama’s victory percentage on Senate votes where he’s taken a position is at 82 percent. That’s a bit lower than recent years but higher than his number in 2012, when Democrats ruled the chamber.

Democrats are voting with the president at or near record levels, and Republicans are too. So far, they’ve voted with Obama 54 percent of the time, just a tick below last year’s record 55 percent.

Legislating remains tough, but the deals on Medicare payments to doctors, Homeland Security funding, and bipartisan cooperation on cybersecurity and the No Child Left Behind reauthorization indicate that predictions of complete breakdown were premature.

“I think there’s a tendency to think that periods of gridlock are permanent and that Armageddon is just around the corner,” said Claremont McKenna College politics professor John J. Pitney Jr. “James Madison helped design a system that’s pretty durable, and we’re seeing his handiwork.”

CQ Roll Call has studied congressional voting, specifically voting by representatives and senators in support of the president, as well as partisan voting, since 1953. Until now, the vote studies were annual projects. Starting today, CQ.com subscribers can see the studies take shape in real time, vote by vote, at CQ Vote Watch.

Readers will see some interesting developments. McConnell, of course, cut a deal with Obama on Medicare payments for doctors, a major bipartisan achievement earlier this month. Most of the Obama victories, however, are on nominations.

That might not be so surprising, except that conventional wisdom had it that Republicans would shut down the nomination process this year in retaliation for Democrats’ decision to unleash the nuclear option in 2013 and rush through more than 124 nominees in 2014, a record.

Republican senators, despite their refusal so far to vote on Loretta Lynch’s nomination as attorney general, aren’t willing to completely shut down the machinery of government by blocking nominees to executive branch jobs. Judges might be left waiting, however. Only one of the eight nominees approved so far is a federal judge.

Obama’s also racking up Senate victories when Democrats are standing firm and denying Republicans needed 60-vote supermajorities. That happened this month when Democrats blocked an amendment by Republican John Cornyn of Texas that would have repealed the requirement that individuals buy health insurance under the 2010 health care law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152).

House Republicans, by contrast, are growing even more antagonistic. If their current average level of support — 7 percent — sticks, it will be an all-time record, and by a mile.

And Obama is losing in the chamber as a whole just as often as he did last year, when his 15 percent success rate was an all-time low.

“The real test for the congressional GOP looms, however, in reconciling legislation issuing from the highly polarized House with that of the more fluid and less GOP-dominated Senate,” said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Minnesota.

The story of 2014 was less about lawmaking — there wasn’t much of it — than about politics and how endangered Senate Democrats stuck with Obama. The same story may repeat in 2016 — with the parties reversed — if the voting patterns of 2015 hold steady.

Won’t it be tempting for Democratic campaign strategists to tout Illinois GOP Sen. Mark S. Kirk’s decision to vote with his fellow Republicans on nearly eight votes in 10? Of course, maybe Illinois is trending conservative. The first Democrat to enter the race to challenge him, Rep. Tammy Duckworth, has only voted with Obama a third of the time in 2015, compared to more than 80 percent in 2014.

On the Democratic side, Colorado’s Michael Bennet doesn’t seem too worried about the fate that befell his former colleagues, red-state Democrats Mark Begich, Mark Pryor and Mary L. Landrieu, last year. He’s voted with Obama on nearly nine votes in 10 so far this year.

Meanwhile, the House presidential support scores give some big hints about which Democrats don’t think Obama helps them much in their districts. Rubén Hinojosa , who represents a Texas border district, has never voted with Obama less than 83 percent of the time, but is sitting at 50 percent so far in 2015, and a number of other House Democrats are voting with the president less than half of the time this year: Gwen Graham of Florida, Henry Cuellar of Texas, Brad Ashford of Nebraska and Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota.

By contrast, there’s been no big move toward Obama among moderate Republicans.