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What a Democratic Senate wants

Democrats could take back the Senate in 2020. They have a massive to-do list.

Zac Freeland/Vox

If Senate Democrats win a governing majority in 2020, they are vowing not to squander the opportunity.

“The idea that we’re going to have to prioritize essentially one topic at a time is preposterous,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI). “The idea we’re going to look at Covid, and health care and the economy and climate and say, ‘Okay, which one of these do we pick?’ It’s a waste of a win.”

If they flip the Senate, Democrats are clear-eyed that their first priority must be more Covid-19 relief — especially now that a preelection deal looks increasingly unlikely. Up next is trying to supercharge a lagging economy with a green jobs bill, likely including a massive infrastructure package on which Democrats hope to find common ground with Republicans. Democrats also want to pass sweeping anti-corruption reforms, enhance and expand the Affordable Care Act, consider a public option, and take up a criminal justice bill to combat police brutality against Black Americans. And that doesn’t even get to other priorities like immigration reform or passing universal background checks.

“Oh, my gosh, there’s so much,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), chair of the Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, told Vox in a recent interview. “We feel a great sense of responsibility and a great sense of urgency.”

There’s a lot of pent-up energy among Democrats who remember how intractable Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was even as minority leader in 2009 and 2010. Those years left a mark on Senate Democrats, and it’s pushing them to think bigger.

“The way I view that is a New Deal Congress,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA).

Sens. Tim Kaine and Bob Casey speak before the start of a Senate committee hearing on the coronavirus on March 3.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

But all this ambition hinges on whether Democrats have the political courage to think bigger about the rules of the game. They will have two options: budget reconciliation or blowing up the Senate filibuster — the 60-vote threshold that has disproportionately been used as a tool to block legislation since 2008. A Democratic Senate majority will include moderates from swing states like Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina. Their campaign messaging is all about fixing Washington by bringing the parties together, and more moderate members might not be up for a power grab.

“The dynamic to watch is whether Mitch McConnell does to a Biden presidency what he did to an Obama presidency,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) told Vox.

Starting in 2009, Senate Republicans blocked a record-breaking number of presidential nominees and united against almost everything. “Ultimately, the filibuster rests on how Republicans approach being in the minority,” a Democratic aide emphasized.

Many moderate Democrats told Vox in interviews this fall they aren’t ready to kill the filibuster right away, but they’re leaving the door open.

“I think there will be enormous pressure on Republicans to find places where they can collaborate,” said former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, the Democratic candidate in the Colorado Senate race, who has a record of working across the aisle in his home state. But even he didn’t rule out the option. “If push comes to shove, I have to look at everything. There’s no question,” he said.

A meaningful Covid-19 response is the first priority

Democrats widely agree on their first big priority: a new Covid-19 relief and response package, likely modeled off the House-passed HEROES Act, which included $75 million for testing and contact tracing, “strike teams” to tackle challenges around long-term care and prisons, and funding to help cash-strapped state and local governments.

“I find that to be a very attractive package,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) told Vox.

Passing an immediate relief bill is becoming ever more urgent, with Trump recently upending talks on a package between his administration and Democrats. The idea has a broad consensus, but Democrats face a big choice: They could stick to an incremental approach, such as covering treatment for the people with long-term Covid-19 complications. Or they could go bigger by enhancing the Obamacare tax subsidies and perhaps enacting the Biden campaign’s proposal for a public health insurance option, part of his plan to extend health insurance to about 25 million people.

Medical workers deliver a patient to a hospital in Brooklyn, New York, on September 14.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Some Democratic aides want to see an overwhelmingly popular bill come to the floor and don’t want to get bogged down in a big fight with the health care industry over a public option. But progressives, especially those in an expanded House majority, are going to push for more — a public option, at a minimum, given Biden’s stated support for it. Even with unified control, this could be the Democrats’ first big decision.

The upcoming Supreme Court case on the Affordable Care Act could also impact this conversation. If the Supreme Court overturns the ACA, one of Democrats’ first steps could be crafting a proposal that replaces it. “We’d have to decide, is the right fix to just do exactly the same thing, or is it to go further and provide even more coverage?” Kaine said.

Broadly, some senior Democrats are imagining what they have called a “never again” agenda if they control the White House and Congress, a response to Covid-19 that addresses many of America’s economic and health disparities exposed by the pandemic. Covering the 30 million or so Americans who are still uninsured would be a natural fit for such a legislative agenda.

“First, you have to stop the bleeding,” one senior Democratic official said recently. “But if we don’t take full advantage of this moment, we’ll be making a huge mistake.”

Infrastructure week could finally happen

If they are able to pass more Covid-19 relief relatively quickly, the next immediate priority for Democrats is revitalizing a lagging economy with a large infrastructure package — and tackling the climate crisis at the same time.

“In addition to fighting and containing the coronavirus, we will work aggressively to create jobs and improve the unemployment crisis caused by President Trump,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told Vox in a statement.

Aides say Schumer is especially invested in boosting the economy and tackling racial economic inequality. Schumer has also made climate change one of his top priorities. This summer was again one of the hottest on record, with scorching temperatures and drought exacerbating deadly wildfires from California to Oregon to Colorado. Iowa saw a massive derecho destroy property and farm crops, and storm surges from hurricanes flooded parts of coastal southern states.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer arrives at the Capitol on September 30.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

Schumer has an ally in Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who has already proposed a $2 trillion climate plan as part of his signature “Build Back Better” campaign slogan. Biden’s plan aims to create millions of jobs through green infrastructure, retrofitting houses, and manufacturing electric cars, among other things. The Democratic nominee shares the broad goal of getting the United States to net-zero emissions by 2050, but he’s also set more aggressive targets, like getting to 100 percent clean electricity in the US by 2035.

“The Green New Deal the president keeps trying to talk about, it’s not a bad deal, but it’s not the plan I have — that’s the Biden Green Deal,” Biden recently told reporters.

Some senators and Democratic Senate candidates told Vox they haven’t yet read the specifics of Biden’s climate plan, but many agree they want a big infrastructure plan and climate resiliency to be front and center of a 2021 legislative agenda.

In August, Senate Democrats released a report outlining their plan for action on climate. It looks similar to Biden’s, calling for decarbonization of American homes and buildings, scaling up electric vehicle manufacturing, and further investment in renewables like wind, solar, and geothermal.

“When it comes to an economic recovery, it’s very easy to imagine that climate action will be an essential part of our strategy,” said Schatz, the lead author of the Senate climate report and chair of Senate Democrats’ Climate Crisis Committee. “We can find common ground within the Democratic conference to move forward with the kind of infrastructure that will enable a clean energy transformation and enable millions of new jobs.”

Even members of the Senate Democratic caucus who are more moderate than Schatz agree that federal investment into the nation’s infrastructure should be one of Congress’s first big priorities in 2021. But the fight over how bold to go on climate — and whether that should include phasing out fossil fuels entirely — could be a real tussle between liberal and moderates.

“At this time, we need an ‘all of the above’ approach where we invest in new green energy opportunities while continuing to improve traditional energy sources,” Kansas Democratic Senate candidate Barbara Bollier told Vox in a statement when asked if she’d support phasing out fossil fuels.

The fact that Democrats want to focus on infrastructure and jobs as a first priority also signals how they’re planning to test the bipartisanship waters with Senate Republicans.

How Democrats might approach the filibuster

Democrats recognize two things: that getting rid of the filibuster might be their only chance to truly govern in the US Senate, and that it will still be politically treacherous.

Most Democratic senators want to try all other options before dramatically changing Senate rules — but they also aren’t saying no outright.

“I will not turn to a reconsideration of our rules until I’ve exhausted every alternative,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), adding he’s already talking to individual Republican senators about where the two parties could find bipartisan compromise.

“I’m not telling you we’re going to eliminate the filibuster,” added Stabenow. “Certainly there’s a real hesitancy on that because my colleagues and I want to govern.”

The thinking from many Democrats is that the first two legislative goals will be a good test of how willing the Senate GOP is to reciprocate. Covid-19 brought Democrats and Republicans together in March 2020 to pass a massive $2.3 trillion stimulus bill, and passing an infrastructure bill has been a long-held bipartisan goal that turned into somewhat of a running joke under Trump’s tenure in office.

Most moderate Democrats want to negotiate in good faith with Republicans first. And if Republicans lose badly in the election, Democrats think the GOP might have more incentive to come to the bargaining table.

“There is a breaking point when Americans look at the United States Senate and they see that the Senate under Mitch McConnell has been turned into nothing more than a vehicle for obstructing progress rather than making progress,” said Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN), who echoed she was open to all options — but likewise would not back eliminating the filibuster yet.

If Republicans refuse to cooperate, moderate Democrats could be persuaded to take more dramatic action. A big stimulus and green jobs bill — and a more modest health care expansion — would be tricky but may be possible with budget reconciliation. Still, Democrats will need 60 votes in the Senate to approve most other measures with the filibuster still in place. And to eliminate it, Democrats will need 51 votes.

Whether Democrats can obtain this support is still an open question. At least five of 47 current members, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein (CA), Jon Tester (MT), and Joe Manchin (WV), have already told the Wall Street Journal they remain wary of filibuster changes. There’s also a broad range of positions on the filibuster among potential new members, with some willing to explicitly support a change in the vote threshold, while others have backed different reforms.

Gov. Steve Bullock in Montana and state House Rep. Sara Gideon in Maine have backed changing the 60-vote filibuster threshold in their Senate campaigns, while Jon Ossoff in Georgia has said he’s open to considering the possibility.

Veteran Cal Cunningham in North Carolina, meanwhile, has said he’s supportive of reforms — including the possible return of the “talking filibuster.” Others, including Hickenlooper in Colorado and Theresa Greenfield in Iowa, haven’t ruled out filibuster changes, but both said they hope to advance bipartisan priorities first. Mark Kelly in Arizona, Rev. Raphael Warnock in Georgia, and state Sen. Barbara Bollier in Kansas have said they are reviewing this subject, and former South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison has said he opposes eliminating the filibuster, for now.

“Basically every member of the conference is concerned about not letting McConnell paralyze the place,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), the Democrat leading talks about filibuster reform, told Vox. “There’s a whole variety of ways we can tackle this; it will be a subject of conversation. So it isn’t like one proposal.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the US Capitol on September 30.
Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images

One of the most commonly referenced options is a straightforward rule change that would eliminate the 60-vote threshold that’s currently required to advance most bills. Others, as detailed by the Wall Street Journal, include plans to reinstate a “talking filibuster,” during which senators looking to block a bill actually need to hold the floor and make speeches to do so, as well as the possibility of making some areas of legislation — like voting rights — impervious to a filibuster.

“We’ve had almost four years of creating problems and adding to problems,” Stabenow said. “Everything is on the table depending on how our Republican colleagues choose to operate.”

The Democratic conference’s ideological lean will determine exactly what it can do

The policies that ultimately advance in a Democratic Senate will depend heavily on the ideological composition of the majority.

Currently, for example, Senate Minority Leader Schumer must weigh both the interests of moderate red-state senators like Manchin and Doug Jones of Alabama, along with that of more progressive members including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) when establishing Democratic positions on everything from judicial nominees to economic stimulus. He’s focused on maintaining unity as Democrats have sought to block Republican priorities including judges and a repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

“Caucus unity is vital,” Schumer told Vox in an interview last year. “If we are divided, Trump, the Republicans, even now, when they control the Senate, will roll over us.” If Democrats retake the majority, the question then becomes whether they can hold this same degree of unity when considering a change to Senate rules or advancing more ambitious policies.

One measure Democrats think has broad support among the caucus is a sweeping anti-corruption proposal similar to the 2019 House bill known as HR 1, which was popular among centrist and leftist House Democrats alike. A number of Democratic Senate candidates running in swing states are making reform one of their signature issues in 2020.

“We have to deal with what I think of as a foundational issue — and that is the fact that special interests have so much power that they are actually preventing us from getting things done,” Maine candidate Sara Gideon told Vox in an interview.

Police reform and a broader emphasis on racial justice is also a key part of Democrats’ upcoming plans. Despite a groundswell of both activist and voter support, Democrats and Republicans failed to agree on police reform legislation earlier this year — putting pressure on the party to prioritize more action if it retakes the upper chamber. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the House this summer with strong Democratic support, could serve as a starting point. That legislation would reduce legal protections for police, including qualified immunity, and impose a federal ban on chokeholds and no-knock warrants.

A mural painted by artist Kenny Altidor depicting George Floyd in Brooklyn, New York.
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Depending on how elections in swing states shake out, many first-term Democrats could have immense influence on how the conference approaches these next steps. Several candidates, like Kelly, have run on emphasizing just how centrist they are, and could well take positions that resemble those of Manchin’s if elected. (Sitting Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema had previously said that Manchin was her role model, and her stances have often aligned with his since she’s taken office.)

If Hickenlooper, Kelly, and Bullock win next year, there could be a politically important bloc of 10 Democratic senators from the Mountain West and Southwestern regions.

“We are pragmatic,” said Hickenlooper, pointing to his and Bullock’s record as governors of working with Republican legislatures in their states. “We are problem solvers, by nature.”

Whether Democrats are able to implement any rules and policy changes of their own, however, rests on whether they can retake the Senate this November. If Jones does not win reelection and the other incumbent Democrats do, the party will need to flip at least five battleground seats to establish a 51-49 majority. Once they’ve done that, the work on their agenda can commence in earnest.

“Get the majority. Beat Trump,” Schumer said in a 2019 interview. “We’ll leave discussion of rules to next year.”

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