For months, we’ve been contemplating a world in which Biden wins the White House and Democrats narrowly take control of the Senate. We asked ourselves if they should get rid of the filibuster (yes, they should) or grant statehood to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico (also yes).
But we didn’t spend nearly enough time contemplating what it now looks like will be the reality: a Democratic president and a Republican Senate.
We’ve seen this before, most recently in the last two years of Barack Obama’s second term. But this will be far, far worse than it was then. We’re about to witness something unprecedented in American history.
In 2014, McConnell became majority leader after Obama had already achieved most of his major legislative goals, including passing the Affordable Care Act. But now he has a chance to sabotage a Democratic president right from the start. Just as important, he knows that no matter how far he goes, the Republican Party is likely to pay only a small political price. What they get in return will be worth every penny and more.
As of now, Democrats lost one Senate seat and gained two, giving them 48. While it’s theoretically possible for them to get to 50 given the races where votes are still being counted, it looks extremely unlikely. Which means McConnell will remain as majority leader.
What does that mean? For starters, you can take all those meticulously prepared policy plans Biden and his team devised during the campaign and toss them in the trash. There will be no expansion of health coverage, no aggressive legislation to address climate change, no move toward universal child care, no increase in the minimum wage, no new Voting Rights Act and no infrastructure spending. None of it.
Nor will there be a new stimulus bill to help the economy recover from the pandemic, since McConnell knows that Biden will be blamed if the economy continues to struggle. At most — and even this is no guarantee — McConnell may allow continuing resolutions that keep the government open at its current funding levels. There will be no other significant legislation as long as Republicans retain control.
That’s just the beginning. McConnell now clearly believes that conservative domination of the courts is his most lasting legacy. Between now and January, during Trump’s lame duck period, McConnell and Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) will run a conveyor belt to confirm judges to every last open seat at every level.
And then the confirmation process will simply shut down. Forget about filling a Supreme Court vacancy if one occurs; McConnell won’t permit Biden to fill any judicial vacancy. Not one.
“Oh, come on,” you might be saying. “He’d never go that far.” You don’t think so? Just wait.
We’re not done. The president gets to fill about 4,000 positions throughout the executive branch, and a remarkable 1,200 of those require confirmation by the Senate. What if McConnell and the Republicans just decided to confirm none of Biden’s appointments? No secretary of the Treasury, no EPA administrator, no assistant secretary of the Interior for Land and Minerals Management — none of them. We’ve already got all those bureaucrats, Republicans will say, why do we need to keep adding more?
Or at the very least, they’ll tell Biden: You can have a secretary of State if you really want one. But we get to tell you who it can and can’t be. First rule: It has to be a Republican. Take it or leave it.
Such a comprehensive stonewall would be unprecedented in American history. But McConnell has shown not just a willingness but an eagerness to violate any norm or rule if it serves his party’s purposes and he thinks he can get away with it. He’ll come up with some ludicrous justification (“No president whose election was decided when it was 52 degrees in Washington in a year ending in zero has ever had his Cabinet confirmed!”), then every Republican will dutifully repeat it, and eventually Democrats will stop complaining, because what are you gonna do?
Biden’s presidency would then limp along pathetically until the midterm elections in 2022, when there would be at least a glimmer of hope. More Republican Senate seats will be up that year; I count six that could be vulnerable, especially in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
But midterm elections usually favor the opposition party. Are Democratic voters going to turn out in droves to help a president who has been unable to deliver on any of his promises?
Of course, this all depends on every Republican senator going along with McConnell’s plan for the Mother of All Stonewalls. Which they will. They’ve shown again and again that they don’t care what norms are violated — if they can do it, they will do it. Just ask Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
Then in four years, Republicans will say, “Look what a failure President Biden has been! Democrats can’t get anything done!”
I wish I could say that the voters will rise up in outrage and cast them out. But right now it’s hard to feel optimistic.