President Joe Biden’s dream of passing an agenda that can be mentioned in the same breath as the New Deal and the Great Society has met a fearsome opponent: math.
The Democrats have much smaller majorities in both houses of Congress than when Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson ushered in the great liberal legislative accomplishments of the 20th century. Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president, had bigger majorities when Obamacare was enacted.
With four vacancies, the Democrats have just two votes more than a bare majority in the House. The Senate is split 50-50, under the control of Biden’s party only because of Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote as the chamber’s president.
Sometimes that isn’t even good enough, as Democrats were reminded when their sweeping election overhaul failed in the Senate on Tuesday.
Democrats could not overcome a Republican filibuster as the Senate deadlocked. They are 10 votes shy of the 60-vote threshold they need to reach to shut down debate via cloture by themselves.
The defeat of the legislation, which Democrats had hoped would help them compete in next year’s midterm elections on more favorable terms, was a grim reminder of what could be in store for the rest of the Biden agenda. Most of the party’s plans hinge on passing the big-ticket items before 2022, after which lawmakers on both sides will be focused on the election and will want to avoid difficult votes.
If Democrats lose either house of Congress, it will be very difficult to legislate for the remainder of Biden’s term. Republicans need a net gain of one seat to take the Senate and seven seats to capture the House. In 1994, President Bill Clinton’s first midterm election, Republicans picked up 52 House seats. In 2010, the first midterm under Obama, the GOP added 63.