Democratic unity makes Biden’s ambition possible

Despite narrow majorities, party is sticking together on almost all votes

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, here elbow bumping President Joe Biden at his April 28 joint session address, has seen her caucus reach an unprecedented level of voting unity. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, here elbow bumping President Joe Biden at his April 28 joint session address, has seen her caucus reach an unprecedented level of voting unity. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 3, 2021 at 7:00am

ANALYSIS — President Joe Biden spelled out grand ambitions in his first address to Congress, led by more than $4 trillion in new spending and the largest tax increase since the Great Society. Historic levels of party unity now on display in Congress mean he could succeed with only Democratic votes.

“We have to come together to heal the soul of this nation,” he said last week in a nod toward bipartisanship. But to achieve his goal — a monumental increase in government spending to bolster infrastructure, green energy, child and elder care, and public education — he won’t be able to accede to Republican demands, which are to significantly downscale his plans. That means using the budget reconciliation process that allows Democrats to proceed with simple majorities. 

It will require their narrow majorities in the House and Senate to stick together, which would seem at first blush a tough job, given their narrowness — a six-seat margin in the House and an evenly divided Senate. But first impressions can be deceiving. 

Consider this: 100 House votes, so far in 2021, have split a majority of Republicans from a majority of Democrats. The average Democratic representative has voted with fellow partisans 99.2 percent of the time.

The House is currently divided between 218 Democrats and 212 Republicans, meaning Democrats can lose no more than two votes if Republicans are united in opposition. And yet, they are winning vote after vote.

Bill after bill

On the party’s highest-priority bills — the elections, campaign finance and ethics measure known as HR 1 and a background check bill for gun purchases — Speaker Nancy Pelosi lost only one Democratic vote. On LGBTQ and women’s rights bills and a bill to grant legal status to unauthorized immigrants brought to the country as children, Democrats voted unanimously in favor.  

Seven House Democrats survived the 2020 election even as President Donald Trump was carrying their districts: Cindy Axne of Iowa, Cheri Bustos of Illinois, Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania, Jared Golden of Maine, Andy Kim of New Jersey, Ron Kind of Wisconsin and Elissa Slotkin of Michigan. 

It would stand to reason that they might break with the party more often than other Democrats, and they are. And yet, they are voting with the party on average 95.6 percent of the time. 

Then take the 19 Democrats in the Blue Dog Coalition, who call themselves “centrists” and say they are still guided by the group’s traditional support for “fiscal responsibility.” And yet, is there any indication that they might stand in the way of more than $4 trillion in new spending, only part of which Biden proposes to pay for with new taxes?

Right now, there is no such evidence. All but one of the Blue Dogs — Golden being the one — voted for Biden’s $1.9 trillion law in March to provide coronavirus relief, aid to states and new welfare spending, even as the bill offered no offsets and imposed no tax increases to pay for it. As a group, the Blue Dogs are sticking with fellow Democrats on 97.5 percent of party unity votes so far this year.

Maine’s Golden stands alone among House Democrats in his willingness to buck the party. His party unity score of 86.7 percent is the lowest among Democratic representatives and his calculation makes sense. Of the seven Democrats in Trump districts, his is the one where Trump ran strongest, beating Biden by 7.5 points. 

Still, other Democrats in Trump districts who didn’t win their own races by as comfortable a margin as Golden’s 6-point edge, aren’t moving to the center. The Democrat with the next lowest party unity score is Kind, at 95 percent. Trump won his western Wisconsin district by 5 points and Kind won reelection by 3 points.

To put Democratic unity in context, CQ Roll Call has analyzed party unity voting every year since 1955. The record for House Democrats, set in 2019 and matched last year, is an average score for all party members of 95 percent. If the voting so far this year holds, it will blow that out of the water.

Senate hopes

If Republicans can’t defeat the Biden agenda in the House, then, perhaps the battle will occur in the Senate. There, with the chamber split 50-50, Republicans need only persuade one Democrat to join them in order to block Biden’s bid to remake the social contract. 

Their obvious target is West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III, who represents a state Trump won by 39 points. But they shouldn’t count on him.

If the debate over Biden’s coronavirus relief law is any indication, where Manchin scored a reduction in the number of Americans eligible for $1,400 relief checks and cut back a bit the law’s enhanced unemployment benefits, Manchin is more likely to trim around the edges than stand alone against the priorities of a president of his own party.

Already, he’s said he’d prefer to reduce Biden’s planned increase in the corporate tax rate, pegging it at 25 percent, rather than Biden’s proposed 28 percent.

And in the Senate, Manchin, like Golden in the House, is an outlier. He’s voting with his fellow Democrats 84.9 percent of the time this year. 

Republicans looking for Democratic allies might approach Montana’s Jon Tester, whose state went for Trump by 16 points. But Tester looks unmovable. He’s voted with fellow Democrats this year 95.2 percent of the time. 

Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, whose opposition to eliminating the legislative filibuster has bucked up the GOP, nonetheless doesn’t look like a candidate to help block Biden’s agenda. She’s voted with her party 96.8 percent of the time in 2021, and hers is the third lowest score among Senate Democrats. 

Sinema is voting with her party at a rate she’s never come close to in her prior eight years in Congress, encompassing six years in the House and two in the Senate. Her previous high in unity voting came in 2014 and again in 2017, when she voted with fellow Democrats 75 percent of the time. Manchin and Tester are both just below their career highs.

Like their House colleagues, Senate Democrats are on a pace to set a record for unity in 2021. On the 125 Senate votes that have split the parties this year, the average Democrat has voted with fellow partisans 98.9 percent of the time. The annual record for Democrats in the Senate is 94 percent, set in 2014, while Republicans have the overall record, 97 percent, set in 2017.

Democrats will face intraparty conflict in the months ahead. Already some in the House are insisting that Congress repeal the cap on state and local tax deductions that Republicans imposed in 2017. Some in the Senate are worried Biden’s plan to lift the capital gains tax rate for the wealthy to 39.6 percent from 20 percent is too much. 

But even if they make demands, Biden can accept them and still oversee a transformation of the American economy unseen in decades thanks to unprecedented unity in his party.