It’s time to admit that the Democratic majority in the Senate was always imaginary

Sen. Krysten Sinema
Photo: Gage Skidmore

When the Democrats won the run-off races for the Senate seats in Georgia in January 2021, there was a huge sigh of relief. Somehow, against all odds, the party had managed to eke out a bare majority in the chamber with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote. With Democrats in control of the Senate, the House and the White House, it seemed that the possibilities for change–including LGBTQ progress–was well within reach.

Barely a year and a half later, it’s obvious that the Democrats never really had a majority, at least not in the Senate. President Biden’s domestic agenda is in shambles thanks to two Democrats who refuse to back it: Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

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Manchin’s ostensible reason is that he’s a Democrat in a heavily Republican state, although every time he comes up with an alternate proposal for Biden’s infrastructure proposal he changes his mind. Sinema is simply an egotist who likes raking in money from fat cats, oblivious to the fact that she has already killed her political career. 

Of course, the byzantine rules of the Senate mean that a majority of 100 equals 60, the number of members required to overcome the threat of a filibuster. There too Sinema played a major role in ensuring that Democratic hopes–including passage of landmark LGBTQ rights legislation–went down in flames by refusing to support an end to the filibuster. She is out as bisexual.

Occasionally, the phantom majority materializes. The appearance may not always be on high-profile issues, but on those that still matter a lot, like judicial appointments, where Democrats still march pretty much in lockstep.

Yet on hot-button topics, Democrats can’t put together the numbers they need even for a symbolic majority, let alone a filibuster-proof one. Last week, the Senate’s attempt to codify abortion rights into law failed, as Manchin objected to it.

The inability to capitalize on the majority status, no matter how slim, has been a frustration to party leaders.

“It’s a majority that comes and goes. Sort of like the tide,”  Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) told Politico. “I don’t know exactly what I expected, but I certainly expected a little bit more clarity.”

The lack of clarity has led to a political narrative that will only harm Democrats in the midterms. They’re in the majority and they can’t get anything done.

Most voters don’t follow the ins and outs of Washington, so they aren’t aware of the details. All they know is that the Biden presidency looks like a disappointment, thanks to his own party. Inflation only adds to the stench of failure.

In retrospect, Democrats were so relieved to have banished Trump and to have averted an insurrection at the seat of democracy that they probably set their expectations too high. It’s not as if they weren’t realistic about how slim the margin in their favor was. It was more that they thought the threat they had just been through would cause them to hang together a bit more tightly than usual.

But egos are larger than party loyalty. Manchin and Sinema clearly loved basking in the will-they-or-won’t-they media spotlight. They’re not up for re-election this year, so it doesn’t matter to them if the Democrats are walloped at the ballot.

Say what you may about Republicans, but they display a party discipline that puts the Democrats to shame. If Senate party leader Mitch McConnell needs every single vote, he almost always gets it. It’s only when he doesn’t–like John McCain’s vote against repealing Obamacare–that it’s a shock.

“Democrats in disarray” is a stereotype in political coverage. But sometimes there’s a reason for the stereotype. In this case, sadly, it’s because it’s true.

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