Factions on the left and right are standing down for now

Democratic moderates and progressives, Republican Trumpists and Trump critics are all more focused on opposition party

Disagreements between Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, left, and Joe Manchin III, second from left, and between Republicans like Liz Cheney and Josh Hawley haven’t yet affected the workings of Congress, Zeller writes. (Photos by Bill Clark/Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call. Composite by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)
Disagreements between Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, left, and Joe Manchin III, second from left, and between Republicans like Liz Cheney and Josh Hawley haven’t yet affected the workings of Congress, Zeller writes. (Photos by Bill Clark/Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call. Composite by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 8, 2021 at 7:00am

ANALYSIS — Factionalism is the bane of leaders and the latest CQ Roll Call Capitol Insiders Survey, a poll of congressional staffers, finds aides of both parties worry internal divisions could blow up in 2021.

As yet, that hasn’t happened, even considering West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III’s protest on Friday.

When it comes to the workings of Congress, lawmaking and confirming executive branch appointees, rank-and-file lawmakers are mainly doing what their leaders want them to. 

As embarrassing as Manchin’s last-minute bid to reduce the generosity of an unemployment benefits extension was for Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, it did not derail the $1.9 trillion relief bill. Nor did it significantly alter it.

Every Democrat voted for the bill when the Senate passed it 50-49 on Saturday along party lines, with no Republicans crossing the aisle in support.

Barring an unforeseen eruption of factionalism, it now appears that Democrats will succeed in passing the coronavirus relief plan proposed by President Joe Biden. It’s a feat that will have required near-unanimity among Democratic representatives and senators, given the unity in opposition of Republicans.

Still, when CQ Roll Call polled aides at the end of last month, nearly 4 in 10 Democratic respondents said they believed that disagreements between progressives and moderates would make it difficult for Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi to govern.

And even as Republicans have held together and stayed on message in their opposition to the relief bill as over-broad and ill-targeted, the GOP aides expressed disagreement about the continuing influence of former President Donald Trump. 

Nearly 3 in 4 of the Republican aides who filled out the survey said Trump would remain very or somewhat important in shaping the party’s future. At the same time, more than 60 percent said they sided with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in his charge that Trump bore moral responsibility for provoking the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. Nearly a third of the GOP aides said they would have voted to convict Trump for his role.

Still, the differences between Trumpists and Trump critics in the GOP haven’t affected the way the party has responded to the Democrats in control of the House and Senate, or to Biden.

Progressives grumbled last month when Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough ruled that Senate rules barred inclusion of a provision to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour in the relief bill, and they grumbled again when party leaders, including Biden, quashed their plans to overrule MacDonough.

“We simply cannot go back to the … voters who delivered us the White House and the Senate majority and tell them that an unelected parliamentarian advised us — based on arcane rules — that we could not raise the minimum wage as we promised,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the Seattle Democrat who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

But the Senate’s progressives, including Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, nonetheless voted for the bill, and Pelosi made the case to progressives in the House for moving on.

“This bill has so much in it to put vaccinations in the arms of the American people, money in the pockets of our families, children in school, workers in jobs,” she said. “Let’s not be diverted into thinking what’s not in, but let’s respect it for what is in.”

It seems unlikely that Jayapal and her caucus will blow the whole thing up when they vote again to send the measure to Biden for his signature.

“There’s powerful incentives, given the close margins of the majorities, for everybody to act together,” said Daniel DiSalvo, who has studied party factionalism and is chair of political science at the Colin Powell School at the City College of New York.

Consider that Manchin, who is his party’s most independent-minded senator, could have demanded more significant concessions than he ultimately did. Despite his crucial vote in the 50-50 Senate, Manchin kept his asks modest, that Democrats reduce eligibility for $1,400 relief checks and keep enhanced unemployment benefits to $300 a week, instead of the $400 in the House bill.

The Democrats’ final agreement softened that blow for the unemployed by exempting from taxes $10,200 of those benefits for people with family incomes below $150,000.

Democratic unity held. DiSalvo expects that moderates like Manchin will temper their demands of party leaders for fear of prompting progressive party challenges that could threaten the Democrats’ congressional majorities in next year’s election.

Manchin has also exerted his power as the Senate’s deciding vote to derail Biden’s nomination of Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, to lead the White House Office of Management and Budget. Manchin said Tanden’s past social media criticism of senators would poison her efforts to work with them, but he had allies among progressive activists who deride the center’s corporate funding.

In the House, Democratic factionalism has posed no impediment to Pelosi’s early legislative push, with near-unanimous Democratic backing for the party’s ethics, campaign finance and voting rights bill and a policing measure and unanimous support for an LGBTQ civil rights bill. 

This week, House Democrats plan to pass a bill to expand background checks for gun sales and to bolster union organizing. The following week, party leaders plan to bring up a bill to reauthorize programs combating violence against women and another to extend the deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. If factionalism emerges, it will be a surprise.

By contrast, factionalism has surfaced in Democratic primaries, with progressives gaining strength in House races and moderates pushing back to secure Biden’s win in the presidential contest.

In 2020, incumbent House Democrats Eliot L. Engel of New York, William Lacy Clay of Missouri and Daniel Lipinski of Illinois lost their seats to progressives Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush and Marie Newman, respectively. That followed the 2018 progressive wins of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna S. Pressley over Joseph Crowley in New York and Michael E. Capuano in Massachusetts, respectively. But that demonstration of factionalism has not presented serious problems for Pelosi.

It still could, as Democrats move beyond the coronavirus and the bills that have long united them. Progressive anger will mount as most of those measures stack up in the Senate, blocked by a GOP filibuster that moderate Democrats are unwilling to eliminate. And Schumer is among those who has to worry about a primary challenge from his left next year.

The cautionary tale, of course, is the Republican Party’s struggle between institutionalists and tea party conservatives who blew up a compromise on long-term government spending and brought the country to the brink of defaulting on its debt in 2011, then to a government shutdown in 2013, and the rise of the Freedom Caucus in 2015. Unable to reconcile warring factions in his party, Speaker John A. Boehner resigned that October.

Trump’s rise soon thereafter set the GOP off in new factional directions, and the decision of 10 House Republicans in January and seven GOP senators last month to support the former president’s impeachment, seemed to forebode turmoil on Capitol Hill. 

But if Trumpism has revealed itself in Congress’ dealings since, it’s been inconsequential. A bid by Trump allies to strip House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney of her post fell flat. In the Senate, a small group of Republicans loyal to Trump, including Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri, has voted against almost every Biden Cabinet nominee. But most Republican senators haven’t joined their resistance to the new administration, and most of the 13 Biden nominees confirmed by roll call vote so far have won majority support among Republicans. 

Cheney faces a primary challenger now and state Republican parties have admonished GOP senators who voted to convict Trump. But the problem of factionalism, for now, is confined to the political sphere. On Capitol Hill, Trumpists and Trump critics in one party, progressives and Blue Dog moderates in the other, are sticking together, more focused on their opposition to the other party than their factional disagreements.