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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

August 26: What if Democrats Actually Control Congress in 2023?

With so much of the political landscape in a state of flux right now, it’s time to think very positively for a minute, as I did at New York this week:

At the moment, gamblers would be advised to bet that Republicans will control the House and Democrats the Senate when it’s all said and done this November. This has for the most part been the betting line since Republican optimism about the upper chamber began to fade once the shortcomings of some of their Senate nominees became apparent. And despite strong recent showings by Democrats in the generic congressional ballot and a reduction in the predicted GOP gains by most handicappers, the probability of Democrats hanging on to the House (currently set at 22 percent by FiveThirtyEight) remains low. In terms of governing in the two years before the next presidential contest, that’s the ball game. Without the trifecta it now enjoys, Joe Biden’s party won’t be able to get much done other than confirm presidential appointees, assuming it does control the Senate. That’s not nothing, but it portends a stretch of time when it is mostly focused on 2024 and preventing a MAGA reconquest of the White House by Trump or DeSantis or some other scary figure. It really doesn’t matter how many senators it has if Kevin McCarthy is sitting there like a troll blocking any Democratic legislation from emerging in the House.

But it’s important to note that the trend lines for Democrats remain quite positive; even the key lagging indicator, Joe Biden’s job-approval rating, is now moving up at a slow but steady pace (gaining five points in just over a month in the RealClearPolitics averages). So the question needs to be asked: What if Democrats pulled off the shocker and won the House as well?

“If the legislative story of the past two years — of the infrastructure bill, the CHIPS Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act — is the return of industrial policy, then the legislative story of the next two years must be the return of social policy, as well as an all-out effort to protect and secure the rights that are under assault by the Republican Party and its allies on the Supreme Court.”

Bouie specifically mentions a robust permanent child-tax credit in the social-policy arena, and then abortion rights, voting rights, and union rights in the latter category. But of course, he acknowledges, this would require not just continuation of the current balance of power in Congress, but a little more help in the Senate:

“[T]o pass any of these laws, Democrats will have to kill the legislative filibuster. Otherwise this agenda, or any other, is dead in the water. If Democrats win a Senate majority of 51 or 52 members, they might be able to do it. And they should.”

So the road to a potential legislative nirvana passes through two difficult obstacles: how historically rare it is for the president’s party to avoid House losses (particularly when the president isn’t very popular), and the fact that two current Democratic senators are dead set against filibuster reform, which is necessary to any major congressional action outside the budget process.

Is a 52-Democrat Senate possible after the midterms? Yes, though it would require that Democrats hold vulnerable seats in Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada while flipping Republican seats in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin (or possibly Florida, North Carolina, or Ohio). At the moment, according to the FiveThirtyEight forecasts, Democrats are favored in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania, and they have a good shot in Wisconsin. So it’s hardly crazy to think they might be able to tell Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to kiss the filibuster good-bye in the 118th Congress. Once again, that only matters, though, if Democrats hold the House.

If that small miracle did occur, you have to wonder if Nancy Pelosi would reconsider her expressed plans to step down as the top Democratic leader in 2023. Any Democratic majority would be very small, and her skill in managing a very small majority in the current Congress might not be transferable.

Such questions still seem far down the road at this point, with history, Florida and Texas gerrymanders, and the current state of play all suggesting a Republican House. It should be reasonably clear that if a beneficent God gives them another two years of trifecta control, they should ruthlessly exploit it to get things done. The 2024 Senate landscape is simply horrid for Democrats, who will have to defend 23 seats — six in states carried by Trump in either 2016 or 2020 — even as Republicans defend just ten seats, all of them in states Trump carried twice. However you feel about how much or how little Democrats got done in the last two years, the next two — if they’re lucky — could represent an opportunity that may not come around for a good while.

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