After a chaotic and exhausting few years under Donald Trump, the promise that Joe Biden would at least be normal won Democrats the White House, but not much more. They certainly didn’t emerge with a mandate for massive left-wing policy changes. Yet that’s exactly what they’ve been pushing, and they’ve been smug about it. Reality is catching up.
Since January, Democrats have rejected bipartisanship and incremental reform in favor of a countrywide makeover via party-line votes—despite ending the election with only a five-seat margin in the House and a 50-50 Senate. They seemed to think Americans would welcome whatever expensive, wacky legislation Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and President Biden offered.
But now Democratic leaders are realizing they not only lack a mandate for their revolution; they don’t have the votes to pass the controversial measures with nice-sounding names they’ve offered. On most of these bills, Mr. Schumer can’t get 50 ayes (allowing Vice President Kamala Harris to break the tie) required to pass this legislation, let alone the 60 votes (including 10 Republicans) needed to begin debating them.
As Democratic leaders awaken to that reality, they seem to be going bonkers. Mr. Schumer is now promising to force votes on motions to proceed on the Democrats’ H.R.1 bill for a federal takeover of elections, as he did on the Democrats’ Jan. 6 commission, even though he doesn’t have 60 votes. He hopes Republican use of the filibuster will increase pressure on all Democrats to abolish it. In turn, this would create enormous pressure on every congressional Democrat to go along with leadership’s radical agenda, no matter how obnoxious parts of it are to them.
Mr. Schumer’s maneuver probably won’t work. Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema may not be sincere when they say they oppose killing the filibuster. But it’s quite likely they’re serious when they say they won’t vote to kill it. I suspect they—and other Democratic senators who agree with them but are lying behind the log—understand that voters favor some bipartisanship and compromise, which the 60-vote rule forces the two parties to engage in. Consider a mid-March HarrisX poll: 43% of respondents said the 60-vote requirement rule “should be kept as is,” while 37% said the filibuster should be “reformed so it is more limited and difficult to use.” Only 20% said it “should be eliminated entirely.”
Things look worse for Mr. Schumer and his cohort when voters explore all the angles in this debate. Private polling suggests the idea of killing the filibuster becomes more unpopular as voters become aware that if one party can pass controversial legislation on a strictly partisan basis with a simple majority in the Senate, the other party can repeal it when it regains power. The country doesn’t want to ping-pong back and forth like that.
Moreover, after Mr. Biden’s $6 trillion budget requests and controversial “transformative” legislation, Mr. Schumer’s weeks of tough votes could aid Republicans by heightening the sense already common to midterm elections that the safe course for swing voters is to vote for the party not holding the White House. Americans still have enough common sense to appreciate how the loyal opposition can check and balance a party that’s going off the rails like Democrats today.
The first five presidents (from George Washington through James Monroe ) saw their faction gain seats in the House in their first midterm elections. But in the 37 first midterms for the administrations that have held the White House since 1818, the president’s party has gained ground in the House only twice—in 1934 with Franklin Roosevelt and 2002 with George W. Bush.
Republicans are already starting to lay out their case to swing voters. Since Mr. Biden took office, the GOP joined in passing Covid relief, approved most of his cabinet on a bipartisan basis, genuinely negotiated on infrastructure and police-reform legislation and helped approve a tough-on-China bill in the Senate that both parties drafted. These actions will help pre-empt Democratic charges that Republicans are blind obstructionists. To maximize their gains, the GOP must also present an alternative vision, composed of concrete ideas enlivened by personal stories that help Republican candidates connect in a personal way with voters.
The fevered reaction of Democratic leaders to the restraint the filibuster places on their schemes to transform the country reminds Americans why James Madison, the father of the Constitution, called the Senate a “necessary fence” to protect against the “fickleness and passion” of the people and the House. What Madison understood then applies today. And absent a stunning turn of events, that fence will remain.