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The power of Mitch McConnell, explained by one question in the Democratic debate

Democrats were asked how they would deal with McConnell. Their answers showed how hard that would be.

(L-R) House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), participate in a ceremony to honor American prisoners of war and the nearly 83,000 servicemen and
From left: then-House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) participate in a ceremony to honor American prisoners of war and the nearly 83,000 service members missing in action, at the US Capitol on November 8, 2017.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Candidates in the first Democratic presidential primary debate Wednesday were posed with what could be a very real scenario come January 2021: a Democrat in the White House, a Democratic majority in the House, and a Senate still run by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

McConnell has made it his mission to block Democratic efforts in recent years, from President Barack Obama’s efforts to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court to recent refusals to take up legislation passed by the Democratic House.

This led to the question moderator Chuck Todd first asked Sen. Elizabeth Warren in a subtle nod to her campaign brand as the woman with all the plans: “Do you have a plan to deal with Mitch McConnell?”

“I do,” she said, with a smile, garnering the audience’s applause.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is displayed on a monitor inside the spin room during the first Democratic presidential primary debate for the 2020 election.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is displayed on a monitor inside the spin room during the first Democratic presidential primary debate for the 2020 election.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

But her response beyond that, as well as the responses from the other Democrats on the stage, showed just how tied Democrats’ hands would be in this situation.

“We have to push from the outside and have leadership from the inside and make this Congress reflect the will of the people,” Warren said. That was her plan.

Since Democrats took the House majority in November, McConnell has taken pride in being the “grim reaper” of Democratic legislation. Of course, with a Democratic president, McConnell, as he did during Obama’s tenure, will have to make some concessions to keep the government open and running (although that’s not always guaranteed, either).

Republicans currently hold a three-seat majority in the Senate and will have to defend 22 seats in 2020. Democrats, meanwhile, are up in just 12 states. But the map is still a major uphill battle for Democrats. The simple reality is that a Senate majority stands between every one of these Democratic presidential hopefuls, their ability to pursue any real legislative agenda, and, crucially, the ability to confirm nominees to the Supreme Court and other important positions.

Democrats’ not-so-satisfying answers on dealing with McConnell

Democrats are very familiar with how willing McConnell is to stand in their way; this was especially clear when he refused to hold hearings on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in 2016. Garland was the context for a question from Todd Wednesday night: What would Democrats do with a Republican majority in the Senate?

Warren’s answer was essentially to win elections and push back against McConnell with political pressure.

“We have for far too long had a Congress in Washington that has just completely dismissed what people care about across this country,” she said. “Sure, I want to see us get a Democratic majority in the Senate, but short of a Democratic majority, you better understand the fight still goes on. It starts in the White House, and it means that everyone we energize in 2020 stays on the front lines come January 2021.”

Outside pressure has worked on Senate Republicans in some arenas; it was a major factor in the downfall of several Obamacare repeal bills that Republicans tried to push through in 2017. That said, there are also times it didn’t work — like with Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination and the Republican tax bill.

In their answers to the McConnell question, Sen. Cory Booker and former Rep. John Delaney made the pitch for bipartisanship. Booker cited getting the First Step Act, a federal prison reform bill aimed at reducing recidivism, passed in December 2018 after making some concessions to his Republican colleagues.

“Not as far as I want to go, but thousands of people will be liberated,” Booker said of having to make compromises.

“We need to put forth ideas, whether on health care, creating universal health care so every American gets health care, and not running on making private experience illegal,” Delaney said.

It should be said that Democrats and Republicans have worked together on major pieces of legislation on several occasions — from Affordable Care Act reforms to immigration legislation to gun control — that under McConnell’s leadership have gone nowhere. It’s hard to imagine that the kinds of proposals Democratic candidates are proposing will get much buy-in from Republican colleagues in the Senate.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said the way to deal with this problem is “taking away the filibuster from Mitch McConnell.” Several Democrats have called for this procedural change — often called the “nuclear option” — which would do away with the 60-vote threshold to pass legislation in the Senate. But doing away with the filibuster isn’t something Democrats can do with McConnell as the leader; nor would it help them in the minority. It would, however, help pass Democratic-only legislation if they win even a slim majority in 2020.

A Democratic Senate majority will be tough

As Vox’s Ella Nilsen and I wrote, to retake a majority in the Senate, Democrats need to pick up a net of four seats. Because this cohort of senators was last up for election in 2014, a very strong year for Republicans, Democrats are on offense this year.

They do have certain factors playing in their favor. They hope Trump’s low approval rating could carry some of their candidates to victory. According to Morning Consult, Trump is polling on net at -13 in Colorado, -15 in Maine, and -7 in Arizona, the three states in which Democrats have their best shots at flipping Republican-held seats. In some historically red states, Democrats have capitalized on a distaste for Trump-like Republicans to win, as was the case in Kansas — where there is an open Senate seat — when a Democrat won the governor’s office last year.

That said, the road to a Democratic majority in the Senate, even a bare one, won’t be easy.

“What makes this map very deceiving was in 2018, Democrats had to defend five seats in states Trump won by 19 points or more,” Jennifer Duffy, a Senate expert at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, told Vox. “In this case, there’s no Republican sitting in a state that Clinton won by more than 5.”

But as shown by the answers Wednesday night, winning Senate seats is also the best chance Democrats actually have of passing meaningful legislation if they win the White House.

“On January 20, 2021, we will have a Democratic president and a Democratic House and Democratic Senate,” former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro said at the debate. It’s a bullish statement — but realistically, without this scenario, all the candidates’ proposals will remain just that.

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