When Democrats hit the federal trifecta that is control of the Senate, the White House, and the House of Representatives, they won a rare chance to pass new laws. The question is, which new laws will they prioritize, given the party only has two years before that window of opportunity likely closes?
After a decade of build up, Democrats’ to-do list is looking robust, to say the least. They have promised to lock in policy to reverse climate change, pass a new voting rights bill, reform policing, overhaul immigration, and finally lock in the health care system of their dreams. Oh, and thwart the spread of COVID-19, of course. There are more options than there is time; the president’s party almost always loses seats in the midterm elections, and if Democrats lose even a single seat in the Senate next year, they will become the minority.
With Democrats’ window of opportunity already beginning to close, the party has to choose its priorities carefully. Less than a month into the 116th Congress, it’s already possible to see how the politics of setting these priorities are playing out. Here’s what we know so far:
Priority #1 is impeachment
The drive to convict former President Donald Trump for his role in inciting January’s Capitol riot has pushed impeachment to the head of the party’s priority line — a sign that Democrats aren’t going to be bloodlessly efficient about passing their policy agenda.
It would take 67 senators to convict Trump — all 50 Democrats and 17 Republicans — and there’s almost no chance of that happening. Still, there’s an argument for taking the time to conduct the trial, said Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy research organization. “Trump’s behavior was so exceptional, that it may be worthwhile to take really aggressive steps to disincentivize the type of behavior we saw from President Trump in the future,” she said. In other words, impeachment’s important enough that Democrats think they have to try for it, even if the odds are stacked against them.
While impeachment hearings seem like they would compete with the Democrats’ early chances of passing new laws, the slow pace with which most bills actually move through Congress makes that kind of overlap pretty unlikely. The idea that Democrats would come in on day one and start passing one bill after another is simply unrealistic, said Matt Glassman, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. “You have to go back to the 1930s, when, yes, they passed a lot of stuff really fast. But since then, the 2009 stimulus is the only major legislation that passed in the first 100 days since the New Deal. That’s it!”
After impeachment, Democrats will likely turn to passing another COVID-19 relief bill. Only then will they gear up for their first big priority, likely election reform, Glassman said, likely in the summer or fall. That’s a pace that fits with historical precedent. It’s also a pace that will force Democrats to choose to focus on just a couple of items from their agenda.
McConnell is still McConnell
Before Inauguration, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell reportedly told Biden he was open to impeaching Trump, a move that would surgically cut the now-former president out of politics. That comment initially led some to wonder if there was an opportunity for cooperation between Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans. But in the first days of the new Biden administration, it became clear that there was no grand reconciliation in the offing. McConnell held up the organization of the Senate — usually just a formality to hand over the gavel to the new majority — for days, trying to extract promises from Democrats. “It suggests that McConnell is unlikely to be terribly cooperative. It’s a strong sign that we are not in a new Senate,” Reynolds said.
Instead, McConnell is likely to keep throwing sand into the gears of politics, an art he perfected the last time Democrats had control of Congress (from 2009 to 2011). It’s even possible that he may have dangled the possibility of impeachment before Democrats as bait. Glassman says he does think McConnell is genuinely concerned about Trump’s influence, but now that the second impeachment is underway, McConnell has every reason to stretch the process out. Biden, on the other hand, would like to get it over with and focus on policy.
Hard partisanship will likely remain the norm, but McConnell also knows he can’t push too far as Senate minority leader. He doesn’t want his obstruction to infuriate the moderate Democrats — like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — who, so far, have said they won’t vote to abolish the filibuster.
Climate votes will be tough
There is a glimmer of bipartisanship in the Senate: A group of eight Republicans and eight Democrats are cooperating to get a coronavirus relief package passed. Politicians on both sides of the aisle agree that the government should step in to help with the pandemic. But that’s as far as the consensus goes. They don’t agree, for example, that the government should step in to help with climate change.
There’s a recurring pattern in which moderates lose their jobs for taking tough, pro-environment stands on issues, only to watch those efforts fizzle. Glassman remembers Marjorie Margolis-Mesvinsky, a Democrat from a conservative Pennsylvania district, tearfully walking down the aisle of the House in 1993 to announce that she would vote to tax each British Thermal Unit, or BTU, of fossil fuels burned. The bill didn’t even make it to the Senate and she lost her reelection bid. After that, “getting BTU’d” became Washington D.C. slang for losing reelection for a fruitless cause.
Yes, there are Republicans who swear journalists to secrecy and then admit they’d like to vote to reverse climate change. But they aren’t going to stick their necks out and risk getting BTU’d unless they think a bill can actually pass. “I have a hard time seeing major climate legislation with the razor-thin margins Democrats have in the Senate, and moderates already looking to the midterm elections,” Glassman said.
To be sure, it’s still early days for the Biden administration. But the initial heading of this blue Congress suggests that the chances for ambitious stand-alone climate legislation are already fading. So instead of holding out hope for a Green New Deal, look for bits of policy duct-taped onto the underside of stimulus bills, and under-the-radar bills on environmental issues where Republicans and Democrats can find common ground.