Reality Check: No, Democrats Don’t Control the Senate

We should stop lying to ourselves about this

Photo by Ian Hutchinson on Unsplash

Members of the pundit class, reflecting some Democratic voters, keep saying that Democrats control all the levers of power: the presidency and both chambers of Congress — even when they know this is an exaggeration. I suppose it justifies their frustration and probably makes for a better story that way … more drama. 😏

We keep indulging in blaming ourselves (or blaming other Democrats — the Biden administration, Moderates, Progressives, or Manchin and Sinema) for failing to take advantage of our “dominance.”

Hello? Wake up! It’s not us, it’s them … them and the evolution of the filibuster into a no muss, no fuss, cheap as dirt, easy as pie, 60-vote blast wall in the way of anything that smacks of a Democratic priority.

As long as Republican leadership continues their policy of unlimited obstructionism and has the filibuster as a tool — and as long as we have a 50–50 Senate — Democrats do not control the Senate.

Neither party controls the Senate. The Republicans can’t do anything because the majority leader is a Democrat, and controls the agenda. Democrats can’t do anything because Republicans insist on filibustering anything that might look like a Biden “win.”

As long as Republican leadership continues their policy of unlimited obstructionism and has the current filibuster as a tool — and as long as we have a 50-50 Senate — Democrats do not control the Senate.

Back to the beginning

In late January of 2021, a miracle happened.

At least it felt like one. Following up on Trump’s losses to Biden and courts across the land, Democrats actually looked poised to claw their way to a 50–50 Senate … if only Georgia could bring home two runoff election wins. And Georgia did.

The afterglow from the emotional high of accomplishing this (and having a Democratic vice-president in place to break a tie) is still with us; the reality is a bad hangover.

First, new Senate minority leader McConnell demanded that retaining the filibuster unchanged had to be part of the required “organizing resolution” on power-sharing in the 50–50 Senate, an unprecedented move. If it wasn’t, he said he would … wait for it … filibuster the organizing resolution, preventing the replacement of Republican committee chairs and stalling any transition to the Democratic majority. It was a last-ditch resistance to reality and a smooth transfer of power, right in line with Trump’s own approach.

Reaction to McConnell’s blatant power grab was so strong that he soon backed off his demand, announcing that Democratic senators Manchin and Sinema’s stated opposition to changing or removing the filibuster was good enough for him.

It turned out he was right. It was good enough for him.

With the filibuster unchanged and apparently unchangeable, it’s been easy to resign ourselves to a de facto 60-vote “threshold” to pass anything through the Senate.

Stop saying that. Stop thinking like that. It’s not automatic.

There is no automatic threshold of 60 votes. It’s not automatic; it’s a deliberate, intentional decision by McConnell and his caucus each and every time they let it be known that they will filibuster a bill they don’t find appealing.

As for anything they want? Well, that would only need 50 votes, just like it did back when they were in the majority and McConnell was the filibuster’s quick-change artist. It’s necessary until they really want something, then it’s not; then it is again.

Don’t normalize Republican obstruction, even if has become the rule lately. There is no threshold of 60 votes; there is only a 50-vote threshold and an all-but-invisible 10-vote “tax” that McConnell can impose whenever he likes — unless he doesn’t need to.

The way the filibuster is now, just the threat is usually sufficient. We’ve become complicit in our own impotence. We’re so used to the Republican filibuster hanging over Democratic priorities like the sword of Damocles, we tend to act as if it’s always there.

It seems novel and surprising when a budget reconciliation bill only needs 50 votes. It’s not. It’s normal, or it would be if McConnell wasn’t wedded to obstruction.

Don’t normalize Republican obstruction:

There is no 60-vote threshold, only a 50-vote threshold and an all-but-invisible 10-vote “tax” that McConnell can impose whenever he likes.

In an earlier article, I argued that, given the 50–50 Senate, negotiating inside the party was as important as between parties. This process took longer than I expected, but it was indeed a key to passing a succession of targeted bipartisan bills on gun safety, veteran’s health, strengthening American chip manufacturing, and the Inflation Reduction Act (formerly known as Build Back Better) — all this without control of the Senate. Well done, everyone!



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Jaime Henriquez

Jaime Henriquez

Teacher, writer, interdisciplinary scholar, “big picture” person. Cynical optimist.