Democrats lack leverage on top priority

And Republicans don’t think they’ll pay a price for their opposition

Demonstrators participate in a June 23 rally outside the Supreme Court held by the Poor People’s Campaign, calling for elimination of the legislative filibuster and passage of the "For The People" bill to overhaul voting rights, ethics and campaign finance laws.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Demonstrators participate in a June 23 rally outside the Supreme Court held by the Poor People’s Campaign, calling for elimination of the legislative filibuster and passage of the "For The People" bill to overhaul voting rights, ethics and campaign finance laws. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 29, 2021 at 10:00am

ANALYSIS Democratic officeholders, interest groups and talking heads have made it quite clear that they are going to spend the next year and a half blasting the GOP over voting rights and voter suppression. Not that Republicans will feel much heat.

As Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison stated after a massive voting rights overhaul bill stalled in the Senate last week:

“Today’s vote is yet another demonstration that the Republican Party is determined to undermine our democracy by restricting voting rights. … Republicans are pursuing a power grab through their coordinated effort, aided by dark money groups, to suppress voters across the country because they know the only way they can win is to cheat. This fight is far from over. I will do everything in my power so that my two sons don’t have to fight the same battles my grandparents did to make their voices heard as Black people in South Carolina.”

But while the Democratic message will surely resonate in minority communities and among progressives — and may even strike a chord among upscale, white suburbanites — there isn’t much political pressure on Senate Republicans to cooperate with President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats on voting rights. 

Democrats are on the defensive in 2022 — both on Capitol Hill and in key states — because of the midterm dynamic and redistricting. As long as West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III or Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema refuses to eliminate the filibuster, Republican senators know they can block anything not passed under the more restrictive budget reconciliation process, which would sidestep the filibuster but has to concern itself, mostly, with taxes and spending.

So when Harrison says that he “will do everything in my power” to protect voting rights, just remember this: He has no power.

GOP voters aren’t upset with new voting rules in key states, and, at least now, Republican senators up for reelection next year don’t think they will pay a price for opposing Biden and Democratic congressional leaders such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer on voting rights (or anything else, for that matter).

Compare the Republicans’ position now to the Democrats’ position in April 2017 and October 2018, when the Senate voted, respectively, on the nominations of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s first picks for the Supreme Court.

Indiana’s Joe Donnelly, North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and Manchin, three Democratic senators from very pro-Trump states, all voted to confirm Gorsuch. Clearly, they were under pressure to do so given the approaching 2018 elections.

Manchin also voted for the more controversial Kavanaugh, while Donnelly and Heitkamp, hoping they had established their “independence” by supporting Gorsuch, opposed him. Accusations about Kavanaugh’s past behavior also made it easier for the two Democrats to oppose him.

Not a single Republican is now in the same position that Donnelly, Heitkamp and Manchin were. (Two other Democratic senators sought reelection from heavily Trump states, Montana’s Jon Tester and Missouri’s Claire McCaskill. Both opposed Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. Tester won, and McCaskill lost.) 

Next year, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is up for reelection, and Democrats are enthusiastic about Rep. Val Demings’ candidacy. 

But Trump improved his showing from 2016 to 2020 in Florida, and Democrats have growing problems in the Cuban American community in South Florida. Given that, Rubio feels little pressure to cooperate with Biden and the congressional Democratic leadership.

Democrats have no leverage on retiring Republican senators in Missouri and Pennsylvania (Roy Blunt and Patrick J. Toomey, respectively), and Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who has not announced his plans for next year, tends to be bullheaded rather than thoughtful.

Manchin and Sinema are not up for reelection until 2024, which gives them some freedom, as does the fact that Manchin represents a very Republican state.

Forty years ago, newly elected presidents enjoyed something of a political honeymoon period. The opposition tended to vote for Cabinet nominees, and some in the other party even backed the president’s legislative initiatives. 

In late July 1981, Republican President Ronald Reagan celebrated passage of the Kemp-Roth tax cut, which passed the Democratic-controlled House by a vote of 323-107. 

In February 1993, shortly after President Bill Clinton was inaugurated, the Senate passed an amended version of the Family and Medical Leave Act. 

Democrats had a 57-43 advantage in the Senate, but the measure passed overwhelmingly, with 71 in favor and 27 opposing. Two Democrats opposed the bill (Alabama’s Howell Heflin and South Carolina’s Fritz Hollings), while 16 Republicans voted for it, including senators from Indiana, Montana and Arizona (John McCain), as well as both GOP senators from Missouri and Alaska.

The existence of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans in Congress gave presidents some of the leverage that they no longer have. The White House could make deals with wavering members of the House and Senate, often dangling spending projects that individual lawmakers wanted. And of course, they could put together bipartisan coalitions.

But much of that leverage is gone. What is left is ideology and primary threats from Trump, the Club for Growth and similar groups on the right and the left. Plus, of course, calls to “do the right thing,” which tend to be trumped by short-term political considerations.