Pelosi’s virus relief win shows she can keep her majority together

Chance to legislate and to boost a new president spurs House Democratic unity

While Speaker Nancy Pelosi has a narrower majority in the current Congress, Democratic party loyalty among members has never been higher, at least in modern times.  (Photo by Tom Williams/Composite by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)
While Speaker Nancy Pelosi has a narrower majority in the current Congress, Democratic party loyalty among members has never been higher, at least in modern times. (Photo by Tom Williams/Composite by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 1, 2021 at 7:00am

ANALYSIS — When voters narrowed House Democrats’ 35-seat majority to just nine in last year’s election, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s job got harder. Conventional wisdom had it that she’d have to tread carefully with Democrats’ famously restive caucus, with progressives on one side and the majority-makers from more conservative districts on the other. But as Saturday's vote on a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill demonstrated, Pelosi still has plenty of room to maneuver.

Only two Democrats voted against the bill. Despite united opposition from the Republicans, Pelosi secured a 219-212 win.

Democratic unity, in other words, has increased since last year on the issue of virus relief. Whatever House Democrats’ disappointment in the election results, the party’s success in consolidating power on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue is keeping their restive caucus together. 

Joe Biden is getting a little bit of a honeymoon. Democrats don’t want to be responsible for handing a new president of their own party a loss right out of the gate that could reverberate across his policy agenda. Plus, with control of both Congress and the White House, and two shots at budget reconciliation, they have a real chance to make law. Many of the Democratic moderates who opposed last year’s House relief proposals, like Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania and Sharice Davids of Kansas, said they objected to the messaging exercises they represented, not additional relief that had a chance of enactment.

Indeed, the calculus was different in May when the House passed a $3.4 trillion relief bill they called the Heroes Act. Fourteen Democrats voted no. After party moderates pressured Pelosi to narrow that measure and she brought up a $2.2 trillion version on Oct. 1, 18 Democrats still joined Republicans in opposition. 

Those Democrats were mainly worried that Republican attacks on those bills — that they bailed out profligate states, impeded economic recovery by paying unemployed workers more than they’d get on the job and included non-pandemic-related provisions — would resonate. Republicans are leveling the same charges against the new relief measure. But it’s no longer an election year.

Many of the Democrats who voted against the Heroes bills lost their seats anyway, but 11 remain, including five who voted against both the May and October versions: Davids, Lamb, Jared Golden of Maine, Elaine Luria of Virginia and Kurt Schrader of Oregon. Nine of the 11 voted for Saturday’s bill, with Golden and Schrader the exceptions. None of them have to worry about reelection for another 20 months.

Going forward, Pelosi risks disunity if she plans a significant leftward lurch. She does not if she proceeds with the center-left agenda she set in 2019, which now has a greater chance of enactment with Biden in the White House. Her victory in January’s speaker election demonstrated the depth of her support. She received five crucial votes from Democratic moderates who’d opposed her in 2019. If she stays the course in 2021, her caucus will remain loyal.

In the last Congress, the top nine bills on the Democrats’ agenda aimed to overhaul the campaign finance system and toughen government ethics standards, bolster U.S. infrastructure, lower drug prices, protect voting rights of minorities and civil rights of LGBTQ people, shield some unauthorized immigrants from deportation, increase oversight of gender discrimination in pay, expand background checks for gun purchases, and develop a strategy to combat climate change.

Democratic representatives voted for them by a combined margin of 2072-4. Seven passed without any Democratic dissent. Pelosi is starting with the same list of bills in 2021. The House has already passed the the LGBTQ anti-discrimination bill without Democratic opposition and plans to take up the campaign finance and ethics measure shortly.

Look a little further into last year’s legislating and Democrats demonstrated remarkable unity on issues that once divided them, from a bill to grant statehood to the District of Columbia, which only one Democrat opposed, to the measure to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Six Democrats voted no, but only one of them is back in 2021.

Pelosi’s narrowed majority holds power at a time when Democratic party loyalty has never been higher, at least in modern times. On votes that split a majority of Republicans from a majority of Democrats in 2020, the average Democratic representative voted with his party 98 percent of the time, matching 2019’s record level. (CQ Roll Call has studied partisan voting since 1956.)

There’s not much room for unity to rise in 2021, but it could. Consider that of the 13 Democratic representatives defeated in November, eight of them were ranked at or near the bottom of the caucus in party unity, from Ben McAdams of Utah, who was the least loyal, voting with his party 73 percent of the time, to Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico, who had the 13th-lowest party unity score among Democrats at 89 percent.

The lesson for those Democratic moderates who survived is that bucking the party doesn’t insulate a representative in a district that’s moving the other way. Politics is increasingly nationalized.

Meanwhile, Democrats who side with the party can count on financial rewards. Consider the fundraising success of Democrats like Katie Porter of California, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Lucy McBath of Georgia, all of whom won GOP-held seats in 2018, voted more than 90 percent of the time the way Pelosi wanted them to, raked in millions in campaign contributions from liberals who live outside their districts and won reelection. The trio were among the top 10 Democrats in their fundraising in the 2020 cycle.

One reason there’s a sense in Washington that Pelosi will struggle in 2021 is the preelection push by progressive Democrats for a bolder agenda. Predicated on a stronger Democratic showing than materialized, progressives suggested the party should take votes on proposals Pelosi had eschewed, like the Green New Deal and “Medicare for All.”

Those would divide Democrats and that’s why progressives aren’t likely to get those votes in 2021, as Pelosi explained in her postelection news conference. “I think you will see as we build consensus, we don’t govern from on high,” she said. “I represent San Francisco very proudly and some issues that would be wonderful in my district are just not winning issues in other places in the country that we have to win.”

With virus relief now behind them, House Democrats have stuck together. The next question is whether the same factors — the chance to legislate and to boost a new Democratic president — will have the same unifying effect in the Senate. 

Those factors, more than the underlying policy, are driving Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s pitch to Democrats, his whip, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said on Feb. 23: “He’s begging all of us, despite any differences with any one section of the bill, that we hang together,” Durbin explained. “This is the signature provision of the Biden administration in terms of dealing with the pandemic and the economy, and we need to stick together.”