The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Liberals now have a path, still narrow, to enacting expansive agenda

House Democrats celebrate after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calls the final vote for the Inflation Reduction Act at the U.S. Capitol on Aug. 12. (Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post)

For months, liberals have grown angry over the languishing portions of President Biden’s agenda, particularly priorities such as an overhaul of voting rights laws that faltered in the 50-50 Senate.

Each failure seemed to be met with the same explanation: Go vote in November, and maybe it will help.

“It’s a shame,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) lamented in an interview earlier this month, promising to keep trying on the voting bill. “We’ll come back at it. Get a few more seats; we’ll come back at it.”

Just a few weeks ago, those admonitions felt like lame attempts to misdirect the Democratic base’s anger. Everyone seemed to realize that the Democrats had no path to holding the House majority and — maybe more important — growing the Senate majority to overcome objections from a pair of centrists and enact the furthest-reaching liberal agenda items.

Now, after a series of actions that started in late June with the Supreme Court ruling on abortion rights and ran through Tuesday’s upset Democratic victory in a New York swing district, a path has opened up toward political victories in November that would hand liberals a chance at sweeping legislative wins that might eclipse the major Democratic agenda items signed into law this summer.

It is, to be sure, a narrow path and requires a political inside straight over the next 10 weeks, but any opening is welcome news for a party that had been bracing for a long winter of discontent.

Democrat Pat Ryan’s victory in New York’s 19th Congressional District — a true swing seat where voters favored Barack Obama in 2012, Donald Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020 — has steeled nerves among House Democrats that the pending midterms will not be as brutal as many feared.

Republicans had been planning a massive target list of nearly 75 Democratic seats, but two-thirds of those are in districts that supported Biden by more than five percentage points — bigger margins than that by which Ryan’s district tipped to the Democratic president.

Those reach seats are not off the table for Republicans — not at all — but Democrats now view Ryan’s campaign, which focused heavily on abortion rights, as a road map for galvanizing voters and preserving most of these left-leaning seats.

“That sound you hear is the crash of expectations of big GOP gains in the House this fall,” the Cook Political Report wrote Wednesday, under a headline heralding “Red Wave Looks More Like a Ripple.”

Republicans still remain the favorite to retake the House, but the independent analysts at FiveThirtyEight upgraded Democratic chances of holding the chamber to 22 percent — up from just 13 percent at the end of June.

Where Democrats have truly felt the biggest political shift is in the Senate, after Republicans nominated several inexperienced candidates who do not appear to be working hard at fundraising and instead are just hoping conservative billionaires will bail out their campaigns with seven-figure checks to GOP super PACs.

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) needs a net gain of just one seat to swap “majority” into his title, but the battle is being fought almost entirely in six states that Biden won: four states where Democrats currently hold the seat (Arizona, Nevada, New Hampshire and Georgia) and two where Republicans do (Pennsylvania and Wisconsin).

Public and private polling shows Democrats with steady leads in three of their own seats, while Nevada remains deadlocked. Moreover, Democrats John Fetterman (Pa.) and Mandela Barnes (Wis.) have pulled in front in their races for Republican-held seats.

Those two are the final key to unlocking the liberal dream agenda. If Democrats hold all four of their own seats, plus win in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, they almost certainly end up with 52 seats and probably would have the votes to blow up the Senate’s tradition of a 60-vote supermajority to approve most legislation.

“If we end the filibuster, we can fight voter suppression. That’s what I’ll fight for,” Barnes said late last year.

“We need to eliminate the filibuster to protect the fundamental right to vote. And if you trust me with your vote, that’s exactly what I would do,” Fetterman said in January.

That one-two punch in the Senate could end much of the leverage that Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) have held over the Biden agenda for 19 months now.

Any party-line actions, including presidential nominations and special budget bills allowed to pass with a simple majority, required Manchin’s and Sinema’s buy-in.

Those two centrist senators played the holdouts on the massive package on health care, the climate, child care and taxes that Biden pushed last year, only to see it fall apart before Christmas and then get resurrected in more modest fashion early this month as the Inflation Reduction Act.

On a series of other initiatives, from voting laws to codifying abortion rights, Manchin and Sinema supported the Democratic legislation but rejected calls to unilaterally end filibuster rules to pass the measures without getting 60 votes.

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The internal clash came to a head in January when Schumer pushed voting legislation to the floor and then forced a vote on ending the filibuster for such constitutional issues.

“I cannot support such a perilous course for this nation when elected leaders are sent to Washington to unite our country, not to divide our country,” Manchin said in a floor speech.

He and Sinema voted with Republicans to uphold the filibuster. Some Democrats also have called for overturning filibuster requirements to enshrine abortion rights by codifying the 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, a way to knock back the June ruling overturning the nearly 50-year precedent.

That would all change if Democrats hold the House and gain two seats in the Senate. It would also open the way for more-expansive liberal wish-list items through passage of party-line budget bills — Sinema was the lone Democrat to block higher taxes on private equity and certain fund mangers, while Manchin almost single-handedly blocked the expansion of the child tax credit that most Democrats believed was a policy game changer.

By Wednesday, as the political ground shifted, Republicans turned their fire on Biden’s decision to use executive powers to wipe out $10,000 worth of student loan debt for millions of borrowers.

“Cynical and outrageous but perfectly in character for these Democrats,” McConnell said.

But liberals saw this as another feather in a cap that is growing filled.

“For people thinking about voting in 2022, this step is a reminder of what President Biden and Democrats in Congress can accomplish when we have power and act boldly on issues that positively impact millions of Americans,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

After passing the IRA, Schumer acknowledged he had heard the liberal complaints for much of his time as majority leader.

“They kept saying, ‘What good is it if, when the Democrats control the House, the Senate, and the presidency?’ Well, we’ve answered. It’s a big difference,” Schumer said in the early August interview.

And it could be even bigger next year, if Democrats keep pulling the right political cards.

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