Every liberal legislative promise from a Democratic presidential candidate—from Beto O’Rourke’s $5 trillion climate-change plan to Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax to Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All idea—comes with an asterisk: the U.S. Senate.
In a Democratic president’s worst-case scenario, Republicans retain control of the Senate in 2020 and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) plays the grim-reaper role he relishes, creating a graveyard for Democratic legislation.
But even if Democrats regain the Senate, the fate of environmental, health and tax policy will be constrained by a handful of more moderate Democrats. Even if Democrats change Senate rules to let any legislation pass with a bare majority, they would still likely need to keep both wings of the party satisfied to muster at least 50 votes for their top priorities.
The dynamic is a reminder that the Democratic Party as a whole isn’t necessarily on board with some of the more liberal proposals of the party’s presidential contenders.
“Under the most optimistic scenario, I can guarantee there will be at least a handful of Senate Democrats who will be dead-set against doing what the advocates will be pushing for,” said Jim Manley, an aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) “There’s still a real question about how much you can get done.”
This reality check looms over campaign-trail policy proposals that candidates make a central part of their stump speeches. A Democratic president trying to expand on President Obama’s accomplishments or roll back President Trump’s achievements will find those ideas shaped by the aims of a few senators.
One, for example, is West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin. He voted against Mr. Trump’s tax law, wants improvements to the Affordable Care Act and wants to address climate change.
But he hasn’t sponsored plans for a fully government-run health-care system. He has described his climate-change approach as pragmatic and advocates an all-of-the-above energy policy that reflects the needs of his coal-producing state.
It is early, for sure, but Mr. Manchin—along with Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, and Alabama’s Doug Jones, if he survives re-election next year—could find themselves at the Senate’s pivot point. Democrats currently hold 47 seats in the Senate, putting the majority within reach.
Democrats are targeting Republican incumbents in Iowa, Maine, Georgia, Colorado, Arizona and North Carolina and defending Mr. Jones on GOP turf in Alabama. None will be easy, and Democrats need a net gain of three for a majority if they have a vice president’s tiebreaking vote.
To Senate watchers, the moderate in the middle is a familiar story, the unavoidable result of a more sharply partisan legislature. That is where Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson and others were in 2009. The compromises they struck on health care removed the public-option insurance plan from what would become the Affordable Care Act and forced progressives into other concessions.
Senate Republicans are warning the White House that the 2012 presidential candidate will face one of the most difficult confirmation fights of Donald Trump’s presidency and are making a behind-the-scenes play to get the president to back off, two GOP senators said.
.. Republican senators have generally waved through Trump’s nominees over the past two years, but they are reluctant to do the same for the Fed, amid fears that Trump’s push to install interest-rate slashing allies will politicize the central bank.
The resistance comes as Senate Republicans also actively are pressing Trump to halt his purge at the Department of Homeland Security and reconsider economy-damaging auto tariffs.
Some GOP senators said that Cain’s difficult path might have eased Stephen Moore’s confirmation to the Fed, despite Moore’s own problems with unpaid taxes and his partisan reputation. After all, Republicans might be hard-pressed to revolt against both of Trump’s nominees.
..“I think the chances of getting both through, I would say at the moment, are pretty steep,” Thune said.
Neither Moore nor Cain has been officially nominated. A senator familiar with the nominations said Trump is “full speed” ahead on Cain even though FBI background checks and documentations of sexual harassment allegations have not yet been submitted to the Senate. A person familiar with the process expects the background check to raise more questions about Cain.
With that in mind, Republicans are trying to dissuade Trump from a brutal political fight that would highlight intraparty divisions; the nominations need a simple majority and no Democratic support can be counted on.
Trump’s intent to nominate Cain marks one of his most brazen moves yet to take on his own party, coming on the heels of his emergency declaration at the southern border that went against the wishes of GOP senators who stood by Trump during the shutdown.
And once again, Republicans are sending the president clear signals: Pick someone with less partisan credentials and less baggage. While Cain did serve on the Kansas City Federal Reserve Board, Senate Republicans say he now largely appears to be a Trump surrogate.
“I don’t think Herman Cain will be on the Federal Reserve Board, no. I’m reviewing [Moore’s] writings and I’ll make a determination when I have done so,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who ran against Cain in the 2012 presidential race and seems confident Cain will either be derailed or not officially nominated.
“I feel that we can’t turn the Federal Reserve into a more partisan entity,” Romney added. “I think that would be the wrong course.”
.. Cain later endorsed Romney in 2012, but one of Romney’s colleagues said the Utah senator “is not fond of Herman.” Cain also challenged Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) in a 2004 Senate primary race.
But more troubling to some in the Senate is that Cain founded pro-Trump group America Fighting Back.
“Do you seriously want a guy on the Fed that has a whole organization, the only purpose of it is to encourage Republicans to do whatever the president says he’d like you to do?” said one Republican senator distressed about the nomination. The senator said confirming Cain would be “hard,” but his nomination alone “might confirm Stephen Moore.”
Cain’s group recently said in a fundraising request that Republicans who opposed the president’s emergency declaration were “traitors.”
The rosier reception for Moore comes in part because Republicans will be reluctant to reject two of Trump’s Fed nominees, given their desire to protect their already shaky relationship with the president. In addition to their opposition to Trump’s tariff threats and his shake-up at the Homeland Security Department, Republicans also recently forced him to back off his demand for a new GOP health care bill.
Yet it’s not clear at all that the president is keeping in mind the fact that he will need to get 50 of 53 Senate Republicans to vote for these nominees. Asked about Cain, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said only: “I was not aware it was that serious of a consideration.”
Stressing that he was not singling out Cain, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a whip for six years, said the White House must simply do more to consult with Capitol Hill.
“It’s really important for the White House to work with us as they’re contemplating nominees to make sure that both the White House has reasonable expectations about confirmations. We can also communicate with the White House about what the challenges of a confirmation may be,” Cornyn said.
.. It’s not clear the president quite realizes the scale of the potential task ahead to confirm his two Fed picks. A half-dozen GOP senators are bracing for competitive races next year and do not want to be seen as Trump’s lackeys. Voting against those nominees could help them assert their independence in their voting record.
Then there are senators like Romney and Isakson who have shown little fear in confronting Trump of late. Romney voted against Trump’s national emergency declaration, while Isakson stepped into a void of Senate Republicans to defend the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) from Trump’s attacks.
They won’t be alone in scrutinizing these nominees.
“Mr. Cain did serve on the regional Federal Reserves, so that is good experience. His wanting to return to the gold standard is something that is very controversial. And I don’t know the details at this point about the sexual harassment allegations against him,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “Stephen Moore appears to have a host of financial and other issues that are going to need to be explored, as well as the fact that he is a very unconventional choice.”
Spending bills need 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles in the Senate, where Republicans hold a 51-49 edge.
Later Friday morning, the president encouraged Mr. McConnell to change the rules of the Senate to enable spending bills to pass with a simple majority instead of the 60 votes required to clear procedural hurdles.
“Mitch, use the Nuclear Option and get it done! Our Country is counting on you!” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter.
The conservative case for a Republican Senate and a Democratic House.
.. Let me suggest a third option. If you are a conservative who is moderately happy with some of Trump’s policy steps, fearful of liberalism in full power, but also fearful of Trump untrammeled and triumphant, the sensible thing to root for — and vote for — is the outcome that appears most likely at the moment: A Republican majority in the Senate and a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.
.. The best argument for conservative support for Donald Trump was always defensive: Elect him and you prevent the installation of a long-term liberal majority on the Supreme Court, and perhaps chasten the Democratic Party and arrest its leftward march.
For that argument to persuade, you had to trust the institutional Republican Party’s promise to contain Trump’s authoritarian instincts and restrain his follies. You also had to downplay the long-term damage, to conservatism and the body politic, of putting someone with such poisonous rhetorical habits in the bully pulpit.
.. so far Trump has been more constrained and less destructive than I expected — his foreign policy less destabilizing (so far) than either of his predecessors, his cruelest policy instincts walked back under pressure, the country more prosperous, his appointments more responsible and a large-scale investigation into his possible crimes proceeding, beset by Trumpian insults but otherwise mostly unimpeded by the White House.
To the extent that any Republicans deserve credit for this constraint, though, they are mostly elected Republicans in the Senate. The House is more pure, uncut MAGA, more reflexive in its defense of a president whose behavior is often indefensible, more poisoned by the worst Trumpist tendencies (witness the steady migration of the Iowa congressman Steve King toward an overt white nationalism) and more inclined to allow Trump a free hand should he seek to make his actual presidency exactly like his Twitter feed.
.. So a Democratic House would supply a much more effective check on that temptation, along with more vigorous scrutiny of corruption in the White House, about which congressional Republicans have been studiously incurious. And it would offer that check without jeopardizing any potential conservative legislative achievements — because, let’s be frank, the congressional G.O.P. isn’t going to do anything serious with its power if it gets re-elected except confirm judges, and you don’t need the House to elevate Amy Coney Barrett if there’s one more high court vacancy.
.. for the genuinely populist sort for conservative (that is, the best kind), having a Democratic House might force Trump himself back toward the economic populism of his campaign, which he mostly abandoned but has suddenly remembered in the last days before the midterms, talking up a phantom middle-class tax cut and proposing an “America First” approach to drug pricing.Given the more favorable Senate map and the possibility of a recession, Democrats can reasonably hope to retake the upper chamber in the next four years no matter what. And it will go much worse for the right if that Democratic majority has 60 seats in that scenario as opposed to 52 — something that will be determined by this fall’s election as much as by what happens two or four years hence.
Of course, if you’re a Trump skeptic who believes that only an earth-salting defeat will enable the re-emergence of a decent right, then trying to constrain a future liberalism will seem less important than rooting for the necessary disaster to arrive for Republicans today. But I don’t think our polarized system lends itself to salt-the-earth defeats anymore, and I also don’t think that parties necessarily emerge from them wiser than before — since in such defeats they’re condensed to their more fervent and often foolish core.