The House freshmen marched across the Capitol to stage made-for-TV protests blaming the Senate majority leader for blocking the agenda they ran on and that swept them into the majority in the midterm elections.
At one point, the newcomers even taped a letter to the Senate door addressed to the recalcitrant majority leader. “We do not accept your failure as our own,” several dozen freshman lawmakers wrote. “The American people did not send us here to fail.”
No, these aren’t the frustrated voices of today’s freshman Democrats who flipped the majority in the fall and have been leading protests the past few weeks against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Instead, that letter landed in the spring of 2011, addressed to then-Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and signed by more than two dozen freshman House Republicans just months after they led the GOP takeover of the House in the 2010 midterms.
Eight years later, the dynamic is similar — one party controlling the House, the other running the Senate and holding the presidency — but the roles are reversed. Democrats, particularly the freshmen, have been leading a chorus against McConnell for brushing aside their agenda, right down to holding similarly staged protests in the Senate.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) are collaborating in search of ways to pressure McConnell to allow votes on their key items.
Just Wednesday, after Robert S. Mueller III stepped down as special counsel, Pelosi jumped on the former FBI director’s call for strengthening the nation’s electoral security, given the Russian cyberattacks in 2016.
“We call upon the Senate to pass H.R. 1, the ‘For The People Act’, to protect our election systems,” Pelosi said in her statement, citing her top legislative priority.
But McConnell has virtually ignored that proposal, approved by the House on a party-line vote almost three months ago. He cited other changes in campaign laws such as federal funding for campaigns as “the far left’s sprawling effort to seize more control of the political process.”
It’s been this way over and over again in Congress.
Democrats have passed bills to combat gun violence and expand background checks for purchases; to reassert insurance protections for those with preexisting conditions; and to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.
They have received only token Republican support on most of these measures, about a handful of GOP lawmakers who barely survived last year’s elections in their swing districts, though 33 Republicans broke ranks to support the Democratic version of the VAWA.
So far, Senate Republicans have stood behind McConnell’s strategy of ignoring the Democratic bills, even those like Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), both of whom are up for reelection next year in states that Trump lost.
“The Senate is a virtual graveyard,” the House Rules Committee’s Democratic aides wrote on Twitter. “Leader McConnell, these bills deserve a vote!”
Democrats contend their best strategy is an outside-in approach, in which they apply political pressure back home against Collins, Gardner and a few more GOP candidates in the 22 Senate seats Republicans will defend in November 2020. They want to organize liberal interest groups to work those states, so the Republicans then plead with McConnell to let them vote on Democratic proposals.
The House-Senate tension is always on a knife’s edge, but it peaks amid divided power, as was the case from 2011 through 2014.
Back then, House Republicans, swept into power during the 2010 midterms amid promises of balancing budgets, saw their ambitious agenda thwarted by Reid and Democrats who controlled the Senate. Just weeks into the new majority, Republicans drew up plans that generated “blame Reid” headlines for the Senate’s refusal to vote on initial GOP efforts to undo pieces of the Affordable Care Act.
“Somehow the Senate can be a place for legislation to go into a cul-de-sac or a dead end,” Eric Cantor (R-Va.), then the House majority leader, told reporters at the time.
Just before government funding expired in April 2011, freshman Republicans blew their tops in another letter to Reid. “If you do not plan to fulfill your responsibilities as Senate Majority Leader, perhaps it is time to step aside,” they wrote.
Sometimes Reid allowed for a cursory procedural vote on Republican proposals that year, doomed to fail, but mostly he just ignored the sniping and ran the chamber as he saw fit.
He practically relished the role and urged his candidates to run in 2012 against what he considered a far-right, tea-party driven agenda. Indeed, despite early talk of Democrats losing the majority, Reid’s caucus gained seats in those elections as President Barack Obama won a second term, validating the Senate leader’s approach.
McConnell is running a very similar playbook eight years later, embracing his role as the caretaker of the “legislative graveyard” for today’s liberal ideas.
“Think of me as the Grim Reaper. None of that stuff is going to pass,” he told his constituents in April.
He is urging his candidates to run against the “socialist” views espoused by prominent lawmakers such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
Democrats say they need to pile up as many bills as possible that have popular support, leaving the more controversial ideas to continue brewing in committees and unlikely to see votes in the full House.
They want to keep sending these bills to the Senate, which under McConnell has been moving at a very glacial pace this year on legislation.
“We’ve got to keep doing what we are doing, so we at least take away the excuse that we haven’t sent anything to them,” Rep. Dwight Evans (D-Pa.) said.
In particular, Democrats point to the VAWA as a bill that will put Republicans in a political box. The House version has language opposed by the National Rifle Association, a key Republican ally, but GOP candidates need to do better with women at the polls to win in 2020.
Democrats want to replicate that as often as possible, with more bills that have broad appeal and put Republicans on the defense.
But, for now, they continue to sound like their Republican predecessors earlier this decade, frustrated by an inactive Senate.
“They have an entire agenda that we have sent over there,” Evans said.