The risks of a fragile majority

As rhetoric rises, ghost of the last 50-50 Senate lurks

Chuck Schumer is just one vote away from losing power in the Senate, while only a handful of votes separate Nancy Pelosi from losing the speaker’s gavel, Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Chuck Schumer is just one vote away from losing power in the Senate, while only a handful of votes separate Nancy Pelosi from losing the speaker’s gavel, Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 3, 2021 at 6:00am

Here we are a week away from impeachment 2.0 and instead of a return to stability and normalcy, the partisan warfare that has marked the last four years seems to be worsening, if that is even possible. Ominous looking fences topped with barbed wire are now all over Capitol Hill, making the symbol of American democracy look more like a prison camp than the people’s House.

An embattled former president has retreated to the golf links but continues to dominate the politics of Washington. Perhaps, channeling Napoleon’s thinking that “Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever,” Donald Trump’s decision to reject the results of the election has put the country through an unnecessarily difficult transition at a time of extraordinary division and desperation. His refusal to accept reality also cost his party the Senate.

But this second impeachment trial benefits the Democrats beyond simply trying to make Trump ineligible to run again — although that was the original motivation behind what is an unprecedented constitutional proceeding. Keeping the focus on Trump gives them the cover they need to obscure a radical agenda. 

Democrats are pushing bills, HR 1 and S 1, that are antithetical to free and fair elections, not to mention First Amendment rights. And they are expected to push through budget reconciliation a COVID-19 relief package that is already over the top and likely to balloon further.

As troops patrol the Capitol, Nancy Pelosi ups the cable catnip of impeachment by shockingly calling her House Republican colleagues “the enemy within.” Meanwhile, because of all the focus on Trump and impeachment, President Joe Biden has been able to sign a mountain of progressive unilateral executive orders that appeal to his base with little coverage by the media as to the actual contents or impact. 

On the Republican side, members are divided over Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney’s surprise vote for impeachment, and leaders are trying to grapple with the atrocious comments of freshman Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. Trump’s support for Greene has only complicated an already difficult situation.

The American people are tired — tired of lockdowns and masks, closed schools and dying businesses. They are tired of the partisan bickering and want to see something done that will help them and their families. Simply as a matter of political pragmatism, if nothing else, both parties should tone down what has become an existential war of words and remember just how fragile victory can be, just how quickly tides can turn.

Past lessons

In November, Republicans did far better than expected down ballot. Democrats won control of Congress but not with a governing majority coalition. In fact, Chuck Schumer is just one vote away from losing his power in the Senate and a handful of votes separate Pelosi from losing the speaker’s gavel.

If history is a prelude, over the next two years, there will be vacancies in the House and probably the Senate. The 116th Congress saw special elections in eight House districts and for two Senate seats. In the 115th, 14 seats went open in the House and three in the Senate. Only seven House seats became vacant in the 114th Congress, but given the Democrats’ current House margin, that would still be a little close for comfort. In the 113th Congress, 11 House seats opened up as did five Senate seats. 

Usually, vacancies don’t necessarily translate into a partisan switch, but when majorities are this slim, a few unexpected results could put Democrats back in the wilderness of the minority. It’s worth remembering the last time the Senate was tied at 50-50, in 2001, when Republicans controlled the chamber by virtue of Vice President Dick Cheney, an identical situation to today.

Majority Leader Trent Lott and Minority Leader Tom Daschle worked out an agreement to share power, in some cases over the objections of their own members.  But then along came Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords, a liberal Republican who became an independent in May 2001 and started caucusing with the Democrats. 

Overnight, Daschle became majority leader, and Republicans were glad they had been agreeable on power-sharing. Democrats ought to be thinking about that precedent. Daschle recently told The Christian Science Monitor, “It’s important to emphasize that in a 50-50 Senate, you really have to have bipartisanship to be able to move [the president’s] agenda. It’s one thing to schedule something, it’s another to get it done. And I don’t think you’ll get it done unless you can see some real effort put into meaningful bipartisanship.”

A rare commodity

Ten GOP senators extended the first olive branch to the new president by asking for a meeting to discuss the COVID-19 relief package. Interestingly, two of them, Susan Collins and Rob Portman, enjoyed election victories that were among the most successful in 2016 and 2020. Portman significantly outperformed Trump in Ohio in 2016. Collins did the same last year in Maine.

What Collins and Portman share, beyond a more center-right political view, is an understanding that being a successful political leader requires more than an electoral victory. It takes building a majority coalition for your agenda by reaching out to all sides. In this divided country, that means compromise. 

At the moment, that message, however, seems to have fallen on deaf ears. For all the talk of unity, it’s a rare commodity in this town these days, more rhetoric than reality.

In fact, the current focus on impeachment has only led to more division rather than compromise and unity. It has let Biden, armed with his “pen and phone,” do the job of Congress by executive fiat, and it masks the strength of House and Senate Republicans, who gained unexpected wins last fall while their presidential candidate lost.

Neither party can claim an overwhelming mandate, given the 2020 election results.  Democrats need to acknowledge that and act accordingly by working with the loyal opposition, not demonizing them. Republicans ought to be looking forward, coming together to develop viable policy alternatives as the center-right party, ready to lead and shape their own destiny. 

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.