Democrats in the Senate got scared a few weeks ago. Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Is the pro tempore president of the Senate, the longest-serving member of the majority party and the third in line for the presidency. Leahy joined the Senate in 1975 – when President Gerald Ford was in office.
Leahy presided over the swearing-in of senators as jurors in former President Trump’s second pending impeachment trial. Leahy’s voice sounded weak during the session. Word came hours later that Leahy, 80, was not feeling well. The Capitol attending physician recommended the Democratic leader of Vermont to go to the hospital for tests.
Leahy was back home later that night to rest. And Leahy opened the Senate the next day.
What would the Democrats do if something happened to Leahy – or frankly, any other senator on their side?
“It’s the kind of thing that keeps me awake at night,” moaned a senior Democratic Senate official. “I worry about a lot of things.”
Vermont has a GOP governor. Vermont Governor Phil Scott would have the right to nominate someone if, God forbid, something happens to Leahy. But in a 50-50 Senate, everything works from day to day.
It is a 50-50 Senate. Democrats are the majority party by virtue of the severed ties between Vice President Harris. But, for a few days at the start of Congress, Democrats found themselves in a practical minority. And the Republicans were in a virtual majority.
Senator Mark Warner, D-Va., Has been exposed to someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus. This meant he had to quarantine himself. And, with Warner absent, the Republicans technically had the majority. Unlike the House of Representatives, there is no remote voting in the Senate.
Due to the absences, Democrats found themselves barred from voting even on a power-sharing deal between the parties to start Congress. The Senate recognized Leahy as Acting Speaker and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y. But operationally, the GOPers were still wielding committee hammers until the Senate finally came to an organizing deal.
It could be two precarious years for Democratic majorities – if not less. As we always say in this space: it’s all about math. It’s a question of math. It’s a question of math.
“Narrow majorities are difficult. But they are especially difficult during a pandemic,” said Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. “If you lose one of your members for a while, you run the risk of losing the ability to muster a majority.”
Many progressives and liberals laugh at Schumer for abandoning the obstruction in the Senate. But wouldn’t the piece de resistance be if Democrats removed the filibuster – and then lost the majority?
Democrats may have no cushion in the Senate. However, Democrats have a bit of a buffer in the House. But it’s shrinking.
The current split is 220 Democrats to 211 Republicans with four vacancies. As it stands, if everyone votes, Democrats can only lose four votes on their side of the aisle and still pass a bill without the help of the GOP. And Republicans are even closer to shrinking the Democratic majority. The Senate has just confirmed former Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. This week, the Senate will likely confirm Representative Deb Haaland, DN.M., as Home Secretary. The Democratic majority will shrink even more.
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The late elected representative Luke Letlow, R-La., Died of COVID-19 even before taking office. This seat is a GOP seat, hands down. The late Representative Ron Wright, R-Texas, died of COVID last month. Democrats may have an outside chance of winning that seat in a special election.
Remember that governors cannot appoint people to the House. New Mexico and Ohio will have to prospectively hold special elections for the seats of Haaland and Fudge. Both districts are solidly Democrats. But it may take some time for Democrats to reclaim those seats.
“A majority that gets us down to one, two or three is not an experience we’ve had in the House,” Ornstein said. “This is clearly a time of very significant peril. For just not Nancy Pelosi’s presidency, but for Joe Biden’s political agenda.”
Roll-call votes can run on a daily basis. It also highlights the possibility that the House could tip over in the middle of Congress – subject to resignations or, God forbid, death. The Senate changed control of the party during a Congress. But not the House.
Yet this poses extraordinary political challenges for President Biden, Pelosi and Schumer.
The Liberal Democrats are barking that their party has taken control of the White House, the House and the Senate. They expect big action on climate change, gun control, minimum wage and statehood for Washington, DC and Puerto Rico. But you cannot do that in such a divided House and Senate. In fact, the problem is not so much that Republicans oppose these measures – but that moderate democrats could get in the way.
Progressive Democrats meddle with their moderates at their peril. Throw those Democrats from the middle of the road, who represent districts or swing states, to the curb and the Democratic majority evaporates.
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The Liberals did not revolt against the COVID bill. But there were concerns that liberal support would slip. That’s why Schumer was keen to discuss climate change on the ground immediately as soon as he worked out a 50-50 Senate power-sharing deal with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Democrats must walk a thin line – repeatedly energizing the core of the party, without alienating the moderates.
What if the Liberals or the moderates do not want to bow? To counter dissension, Democratic leaders may have only one option. Give an inspiring half-time speech from the football coach to rally the players.
“You’ve only got one running back and a wide receiver. And you say to your team, ‘Are we going to do this or not? Are we going to come together or are we going to show the best that we have? Are we going to put that on the line or are we going to fight amongst ourselves? The choice is ours and the stakes are high, ”said Danny Weiss, former chief of staff at Pelosi.
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Pelosi is as good a polling station as he has ever walked through the door of the Capitol. But there are limits to his powers with such a narrow majority.
“The House is a beautiful political instrument,” Weiss said. “You can win everything by a vote except for a suspension bill. But in a place where you can win by a vote, I think they still have enough leeway to hold onto power.”
And, in a divided Congress like this, it can boil down to one vote – on the majority of occasions.
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