No one should be working harder to tamp down the unrealistic expectations raised by this sort of commentary than Biden. He served in the Senate the last time it was split 50-50, in early 2001. So he’ll vividly recall how Republicans, who then held the tie-breaking vote in the form of Vice President Dick Cheney, had to cut a power-sharing deal with his Democratic Party to proceed. Biden is a 36-year veteran of an exclusive club that prides itself on its ability to exasperate and foil the executive branch.
Just ask former president Barack Obama. He briefly enjoyed a rare Senate “supermajority,” meaning his party had the 60 votes required to end — or at least get around — the dreaded filibuster. Even so, he found the marble chamber to be a Bermuda triangle that swallowed up everything from judicial nominees to immigration initiatives to his promised closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention center.
Or ask soon-to-be ex-President Trump. He promised over and over to repeal Obamacare, only to have his best chance torpedoed by a dramatic midnight thumbs down from Sen. John McCain, a former Navy pilot and POW whose heroism Trump had notoriously questioned.
This is the way the founders planned it: They designed the Senate to be a giant speed bump in the lawmaking process. James Madison viewed the chamber as a guard against the public’s “fickleness and passion,” and George Washington legendarily told Thomas Jefferson that the Senate was the saucer to cool the hot tea of public debate. The quote is apocryphal, but it has been invoked frequently enough to have become a sort of lodestar for Senate institutionalists, who long have taken pride in the stately pace and quaint rituals of a chamber that bans cellphones from the floor but still keeps brass spittoons handy.
That group includes Biden, who clearly would rather master the Senate the old-fashioned way, through relationships. The question is whether they still count for anything in a chamber whose members spend more time on jet planes and at fundraisers than they do socializing with one another — and where partisan polarization has increased in the decade since Biden left.
Biden makes much of his Senate friendships, but of the 100 senators who will be serving on Inauguration Day, fewer than a third served with Biden before he departed to become vice president. Only a dozen spent more than 10 years as his colleague. Of the bipartisan “Gang of 14,” the group that negotiated ferociously to preserve the filibuster in 2005 as a spur to bipartisanship, only two — Republicans Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Susan Collins (Maine) — remain.
Despite pressure from prominent Democratic allies such as Obama and former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, Biden seems unlikely to drive a silver stake into the heart of the filibuster — the Senate’s most powerful tool for thwarting or extracting concessions from the executive.
The eyeball-glazing series of parliamentary maneuvers (involving a non-debatable motion, a point of order, a ruling from the chair and more that you can read about in a Brookings Institution paper published in September) required to accomplish this with the Democrats’ bare majority seem out of reach, since at least one member of their caucus, Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), already has said he’s against it.
All the evidence suggests Biden probably is, too. “The existence of the filibuster remains important to ensuring the balanced government the framers envisioned.” That’s a quote from the 2010 farewell speech to the Senate by Ted Kaufman, the closest thing the president-elect has to an alter ego. Biden’s longtime Senate chief of staff, Kaufman briefly served as his boss’s appointed successor after Biden became vice president. He’s now chairing Biden’s transition.
Even if Biden would or could get rid of the filibuster, however, the Senate’s more fluid rules still give individual members — especially those with ambitions on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — the ability to undermine or at least severely delay a presidential agenda. Unlike the House, where the schedule is set by the Rules Committee under the absolute control of the speaker, the Senate allows any member to stop debate with an objection or to gum up legislation by offering any amendments they please, including those that have nothing to do with the matter at hand.
And about Biden’s whopping 50-plus-Kamala Harris majority: Let’s not forget that the Democrats are hardly a reliable voting bloc, running the ideological gamut from democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) to centrists who need to win in Republican states, such as Manchin and Jon Tester (Mont.).
Biden’s best chance for accomplishing anything may come from what happened Wednesday at the Capitol. Will the shock prove grievous enough to restore something of the comity that marked his time in the Senate, when bipartisanship and compromise were not dirty words? There are at least some signs he could “enjoy,” if that is the word, the most harrowing of presidential honeymoons.
“If this is not a wake-up call, I don’t know what is,” Graham said Thursday.
But as Graham’s career and history with Biden has evinced, Senate loyalties can be fleeting. And any frisson of goodwill is unlikely to last long. Based on the actions of Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) this past week, the race to 2024 already has begun.
So, congrats — or should it be condolences? — on winning “control” of the Senate, Mr. President-elect. You, better than anyone, know exactly how hard you’re going to have to work to make it mean anything.